Tuesday, December 31, 2019

“The Hairbreadth Train Affair” at Otahuhu, 1911 – the heroism of Francis Arthur Claude

On the southern side of Portage Road in Otahuhu, around number 130, the Auckland Saleyards Company used to have their stock pens from the 1910s. In April 1911, their on-site manager was Francis Arthur Claude, living in a house alongside the stockyards with his wife Susan Ursula and two young children, Frances Jeanette born 1907 and Lorraine born in 1908. 

On the evening of 17 April that year, Easter Monday, a passenger train from Auckland to Otahuhu arrived at the latter station at 9.28pm. The Main Trunk Express left Auckland at 9.15, so to get out of the way the Otahuhu train was shunted onto a siding. That night, the express had 600 passengers, including the Governor Lord Islington. His special carriage was directly behind the engine of the express. Once the overland express had passed through, the Otahuhu local train was meant to be put back on the main line, to start its return journey at 9.43 pm. But that evening, things went awry. 

The engine was uncoupled from the carriages during the side-lining, the intent being for it to be moved to the other end for the return journey. But, with the grade northward from Otahuhu being quite considerable, the four carriages and a van broke away and started to roll back down the main line, into the path of the oncoming mainline express train. 

The staff at the engine left behind vigorously blew the engine’s whistle, hoping to attract the attention of the driver of the express and alert him to the danger. The whistles did get the attention of Claude, from his Portage Road office. 

In course of conversation with a "Star" representative this morning, Mr Claude told an interesting.story. Shortly before 10 o'clock, While writing in his office at Westfield, which is near the railway siding, he heard three distress whistles, which in the railway service denotes danger, and the need for putting-brakes on. The sky was overcast and cloudy, the moon being quite hidden, but it did not take Mr Claude long to grasp the position. His work at the saleyards brings him into daily contact with stock trucking operations at the Westfield siding, and one glance sufficed to show that two trains were running towards each other on the one line. 

“At Westfield there are two down grades — one from Otahuhu and one from Penrose, and down both were coming brightly lit passenger trains. The express was travelling at 20 miles an hour, and the runaway carriages at about eight miles an hour. Unless something happened to prevent a collision the two trains would meet in the vicinity of the city abattoir gate. At this time the express was less than half-a-mile away, and the intended passenger cars only 100 yards away from where Mr. Claude stood.
“With remarkable presence of mind Mr Claude ran from his office on to the railroad track, [some reports said he vaulted over a number of paddock fences in doing so] and then jumped on to the van as the runaway cars flashed past. His knowledge of the stock-trucking business standing him in good stead, he at once applied the Westinghouse brake, and brought the cars to a standstill.
“Jumping out again he seized flaring red lights off the back of the van, and rushing up to the windows of the other carriages, told two passengers who were on board of their danger. Their surprise was genuine. The two travellers in question had taken tickets for Auckland, and had not had the slightest idea that there was no engine on the train, but believed they were making the ordinary journey back to the city. Speedily disillusioned on this point, they lost no time in quitting their seats.
“Meantime Mr Claude had run on about 20 yards ahead, flashing the red light as he ran, and the express was brought to a standstill within two chains of the stationary carriages. Without Mr Claude's intervention, another two minutes would have sufficed to bring about a collision, and had the driver of the express been fortunate enough to have seen his danger and stop his train, there would still have been nothing to prevent the runaway cars crashing into the express, whether that train happened to be travelling or stationary. Only Mr Claude's prompt action averted that accident. Had the two trains been in motion and collided at this point, there was a fairly steep embankment on one side over which they would probably have toppled, and a big railway smash would have had to be recorded. "I have no wish to appear prominently before the public in regard to this incident,” modestly remarked Mr Claude, "but l am convinced that had I not been in the vicinity of Westfield siding, and luckily possessed of a knowledge of how to work the Westinghouse brake, there would certainly have been a terrible accident." 

 (Auckland Star 19 April 1911 p.5) 

The express was then used to shunt the van and carriages of the other train back up to Otahuhu, before continuing on, delayed by half an hour. The railway department instituted an inquiry and immediately suspended three staff members. The guard on the Otahuhu train was reduced in rank, but the other two staff members were exonerated. The inquiry also found that the driver of the express had spotted the runaway carriages before Claude waved the red light, so awarded that driver a £10 bonus “for keeping a good look-out.” The railway officials were apparently none too happy with Claude, though. 

“I am told that Mr Claude, who saved the Wellington express from coming to grief near Otahuhu, while complimented by by the railway authorities for his promptitude and judgement, was solemnly warned that his action was quite contrary to the rules and regulations of the railway service, which distinctly prohibited any interference with brakes by other than officials, as such interference was calculated to lead to accidents! This reminds me of the story of the railway company which, in learning that it was likely to be sued for damages by a passenger who had fallen from a moving train owing to a defective lock on one of the carriage doors, promptly took proceedings against him for infringing one of its by-laws by leaving a train while in motion!” 

(NZ Herald 29 April 1911)

The Otahuhu incident made headlines around the country, Wellington’s Dominion newspaper for example calling it “The Hairbreadth Train Affair.” A letter was sent from Lord Islington, amongst many others from the passengers who had been saved that night: 

“It was not until this morning that I was placed in possession of the facts in connection with the providential escape from a serious accident that I and my fellow passengers 'had on Monday night during our journey on the Main Trunk express, and that escape was due to the courage, decision and presence of mind displayed in so singular a manner by the action you took on the occasion thus averting what in all probability would have been a very serious accident. I desire on my own behalf, and those of my staff who accompanied me, to tender to you our expression of deep appreciation and gratitude for the splendid service you rendered us, together with all the other occupants of the train, by your prompt and masterly action. As my car on the occasion happened to be next to the engine I feel particularly indebted to you for your invaluable services.”

(NZ Times 22 April 1911, p. 1) 

Donations were left at the office of the Auckland Star for a testimonial for Claude, in recognition of his heroism. The Government did present him with £50. 

But then, Claude fell dangerously ill with pleurisy and was reported to be in Auckland Hospital on 1 June. Lord Islington made a personal visit to him at the hospital, but Francis Arthur Claude died on 13 June 1911. 

“Mr Francis Arthur Claude, whose pluck and promptitude saved the Southern-bound Main Trunk express from disaster at Otahuhu on Easter Monday, passed away at the District Hospital last evening at the early age of 33 years, after suffering for several weeks from a severe attack of pleurisy. Mr Claude's action in boarding the runaway train at imminent risk and averting a catastrophe by applying the Westinghouse brake will not soon be forgotten, as but for his courage and promptitude the consequences would almost certainly have marked a black day indeed in the railway history of this Dominion. The Government presented him with a cheque for £50. Among the passengers on the express was the Governor (Lord Islington) who has made frequent inquiries as to the condition of Mr Claude since his admission to the Hospital. The consequences to the health of Mr Claude were however, serious, and his medical attendants consider that the shock to his system from the trying ordeal through which he passed that night has contributed largely to his early demise. So fixed had the incident become in his mind, in fact, that he repeatedly referred to it in his delirium. The deceased leaves a widow and two young children.” 

(Auckland Star 14 June 1911, p. 8) 

“The funeral of the late Mr Francis Arthur Claude took place yesterday afternoon, the interment being made at the Otahuhu cemetery. Widespread interest had been excited by Mr Claude's action in preventing a collision between the Main Trunk express and a runaway train on the evening of Easter Monday, and general sympathy was felt for him when he was seized by the illness which terminated in his death. The gathering at the funeral yesterday was a very large one, many people whose admiration had been awakened by Mr Claude's gallant action joining with the large number of his friends in the last marks of respect to the deceased.
"About 150 wreaths were sent, among them being a beautiful one sent by His Excellency the Governor (Lord Islington), who was a passenger on the train which Mr Claude saved from disaster. The employees of Buckland's saleyards, at which Mr Claude was latterly employed sent a wreath, and artificial wreaths were sent by the employees of Messrs Kemphome and Prossor, among whom he formerly worked, and by the Masonic Lodge of Opotiki, of which he was a member. The service at the graveside was conducted by the Rev H Mason, of Olahuhu.”

(NZ Herald 16 June 1911, p. 6) 

With his passing, there were still heartfelt expressions of appreciation for Claude’s bravery. 

“Sir, Now that Mr Claude, whose brave action prevented loss of life and serious injury to many passengers, also damage, the extent of which it is impossible to calculate, has passed away, there is a chance for the Government to redeem itself by making a rightful and generous acknowledgment that will put his widow and family on a secure footing for the future. If the runaway had not been stopped, what chance would the driver of the express have had to stop his heavy train travelling at a good speed, and reversing in time to avoid the collision? Very little, and it is safe to assert that £50 would be like a drop in the ocean in comparison to the amount the damage would have run into. Another suggestion, either for the public of Auckland or for the Government to take into consideration, is the erection of a suitable monument to set forth the record of his gallant deed, thus providing that the memory of the event would be kept alive, for ail example to others of what a man should do. Waitemata. 
"Sir, —My sympathy goes out just now to the widow and family of Mr Claude. If there had been something of a sensation connected with his deed we should have had a wave of enthusiasm, as in other sensational cases. He cared for others, and let self go. Let us look after his wife and children.
H Mason. Eden Terrace."

(NZ Herald 22 June 1911) 

Susan Claude did petition Parliament for a compassionate allowance in August 1911, joined by a petition in support by local residents. The petition was supported by MPs Albert Glover (Auckland Central), Frederic William Lang (Manukau), and Charles Poole (Auckland West). William Massey, the Leader of the Opposition, was quite sympathetic as well. The Minister of Railways, though, John Andrew Millar, was not a supporter of the cause when it was considered by Parliament on 2 September. 

“The Hon Mr Millar said that although he did not want to detract from what was certainly a very meritorious deed he wished to correct the wrong impression that Mr Claude saved the express. Had Mr Claude never been there no collision would have occurred, as the runaway train was already slowing down on an up-grade, while the engine-driver of the express was aware of the position, and had his train well in hand. The Minister remarked that the fact of Mr Claude being able to leave his house, run across, and jump two gates and then catch the runaway train showed that the pace could not have been very terrific … "It is not the business of the Government to give compassionate allowances to every widow whose husband dies under natural causes. Claude died of pleurisy, and there is not a tittle of evidence that what he did contributed directly or indirectly to his death. The doctor said in all probability it contributed, but there is no evidence that it did." 
(NZ Herald 2 September 1911 p. 8)

This statement caused Rev Harry Mason from Otahuhu to react. Millar’s statement that Claud’s actions had little to no bearing on the incident were: 

“ … refuted by the Rev H Mason, of Otahuhu, who has been collecting evidence to show that the Minister of Railways had been misinformed of the circumstances. The facts in Mr Mason's possession clearly show that the runaway train had mounted the upgrade at a considerable pace as the result of the impetus gained in its long downhill run from Otahuhu to Westfield. It was within a few yards of the rise when the late Mr Claude jumped aboard, and it was about to commence descent of another down grade when he applied the Westinghouse brake. The rate at which the train was travelling, states Mr Mason, is proved by the fact that the shock was sudden enough to throw Mr Claude off on to the ground, his clothing being cut about through his fall. The train was brought to a standstill, however, and Mr Claude, seizing a tail-light from the guard's van, ran towards the express waving it wildly, and just before his death in the hospital he informed Mr Mason that he was so afraid of not attracting the driver's attention that he was about to throw the lamp at the engine and jump clear of the rails when he heard the brakes put on. A bystander who witnessed the whole affair has also informed Mr Mason, that he heard the driver, when he got down off the engine of the express, say, "What have you stopped the train for?" 
“Mr. Mason adds that he is quite convinced that the episode hastened Mr Claude's death, and even in his delirium in the hospital just before the end he was raving excitedly about the danger of the collision and his endeavour to avert it. 
"Mr Peter Wyatt, of Paparata, Bombay, is one of those who supplied Mr. Mason with evidence bearing on the case. He writes as follows; "I consider Mr Millar's statement in the House robs Mr Claude's action of the merit it deserves. I heard the danger whistles from the engine of the runaway train, and when I got down on to the track at Westfield I found Mr Claude had stopped the runaway train within a chain of the next downgrade. Just after I arrived the driver of the express pulled his train up and got down off his engine. There were two passengers on the runaway train, and it would be a good thing to get them to come forward and give their version of what occurred."

(Dominion 16 September 1911, p. 4)

In the end, Parliament gave Susan Claude an additional £100 grant in October 1911 “for the services of her late husband.” 

Susan Ursula Claude died 6 August 1930, aged 50. One of the Claude daughters, Lorraine, predeceased her, dying 22 November 1925, aged just 17 years. Francis Arthur, Susan Ursula and Lorraine are all remembered by a simple plaque at the Holy Trinity Memorial Park (formerly Anglican cemetery) in Otahuhu.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

When a rusty pistol fired once -- the death of William John Turner, 1945


"It is disturbing that any boy of secondary school age should ever point a weapon, but I am astounded that the fool hazard of spinning the magazine should be tried out," said the city coroner, Mr A Addison, when closing an inquest yesterday into the death of William John Turner, aged 14, son of Mr W A Turner, of 67 Marsden Avenue, Mount Eden. The boy died from a gunshot wound in the head shortly after an incident at the Domain in which he was seen by two schoolboy companions to take out a revolver, spin the chamber, point it at his temple and pull the trigger. 

Evidence was given by Cyril James Gordon, a delivery boy, that about the beginning of September he climbed through a manhole in the wash-house at his home and found an old rusty revolver lying on the ceiling. He did not know who owned it and did not inform his parents of his discovery. A few days later deceased called at his home to see the weapon and witness showed it to him. As they were going away to play he placed it in the letter box at the gate. When he went back in the evening the revolver was missing. A few days later he saw deceased with it at the Peary Road park, and agreed to let him have it a little longer. 

Walter Raymond Brown, a pupil of the Seddon Memorial Technical College, said he procured a partly-filled box of .22 calibre ammunition from another boy at school to go rabbit shooting at Huapai. While witness was acting as a platoon sergeant in charge of a squad of college cadets on parade at the Outer Domain, deceased, who was in the squad, showed him a revolver he was carrying in his tunic. When witness said he had a box of .22 cartridges, deceased kept pestering him for some of the ammunition. After the parade was dismissed witness gave him two rounds. He did not think they would fit the revolver. 

Another pupil at the Seddon Memorial Technical College, John Walker Watson, said that on one occasion just after school had finished he was with deceased at the corner of Wellesley and Symonds Streets, when deceased took a revolver out of his school-bag and put a live cartridge in the cylinder. He spun the cylinder round and placed the end of the barrel on his right temple, saying, "I am going to shoot myself." He then pulled the trigger, but the revolver just clicked on an empty chamber. "He did this about three times altogether, spinning the chamber, putting the revolver to his temple and pulling the trigger," witness continued. "He told me that, even if the hammer hit the bullet, it would not go off, as the bullet was short, and a long one was required. After doing this, deceased pointed the revolver at several other boys and pulled the trigger. The revolver clicked, but nothing happened." 

Brian Edward Page, also a pupil of the Seddon Memorial Technical College, said that he attended a parade held by the, school cadets in the Domain. After the parade was dismissed, he and another boy, Robert Seath, were walking toward the hospital when they were joined by deceased. On reaching the Inner Domain, deceased pulled a revolver from inside his tunic and said: "Watch me." He then spun the cylinder of the revolver and pointed it to his head. There was an explosion and deceased fell to the ground. Witness saw blood streaming from his head. "Prior to the shooting, deceased was in a good humour," witness added. "He was smiling when he drew the revolver. I do not think that he intended to shoot himself. I think that he was just fooling and was showing off. He never mentioned to me that he intended to take his life." 

Ernest Cyril Wooller, a master at the Seddon Memorial Technical College, said he held the rank of major in the Territorial Force. On Wednesday, September 26, he was in command of a parade of about 800 college cadets in the Outer Domain. It consisted mostly of footdrill and some weapon training with .303 rifles and Bren guns. No live ammunition was issued to any of the boys. He knew nothing about deceased having a revolver either at school or at the parade and was unaware of the accident until the next day. 

In a report on the revolver and ammunition, Gregory G Kelly, an arms expert attached to police headquarters in Wellington, said the weapon used by deceased was a .22 calibre double action revolver of seven cartridge capacity. It was old and decrepit. The mainspring was apt to slip out of place and when this occurred the hammer had a poor blow, One might snap the hammer dozens of times on live ammunition without firing a shot. It would seem that it was a misfortune that the blow which discharged the fatal shell was struck at the time the boy pointed the weapon at himself, continued the report. This was the 19th case reported this year in which minors had been killed or injured through unskillful or careless handling of firearms. 

"The evidence gives a very complete story of the tragedy and the circumstances leading up to the fatal culmination," said the coroner. "It shows that deceased had been making very dangerous play with the weapon and I am justified in drawing the conclusion that as a result of his experiments and inexperience he had formed the opinion that the revolver would not discharge with the mere action of snapping the hammer. "It may be that this is the result of those trashy thrillers seen, read and heard by boys with a thirst for sensationalism", he continued. Nothing could be said against the college authorities. 

Every one present in the Court would appreciate the amount of investigation and helpful work done by the police in bringing to light the full circumstances of the boy's death. He was satisfied that deceased did not intend to kill himself. The coroner returned a verdict that the cause of death was a gunshot wound in the head unintentionally self-inflicted by deceased. 
(NZ Herald 22 November 1945) 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Peace bonfires on Mount Eden, 1919

"Showing a bonfire on Mount Eden for the peace celebrations at the end of the First World War," 19 July 1919. 
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 4-1515C

Above is the second bonfire arranged on the maunga for the peace celebrations. The Mt Eden Borough Council decided in May to spend £100 building a pyre beside the trig station, using bits of gorse etc cut from road clearing operations in the borough. All heck broke loose in the letters columns of the newspapers, criticising the council for effectively proposing to burn such a lot of money, a "wicked waste" and "a useless sin." 

The Mayor defended the decision, saying that the £100 would be defrayed by contributions from the Peace Committee's general funds, but the criticism kept up. On 16 June, it was reported: 

"... the forthcoming peace celebrations is now well in hand. The engineer to the Mount Eden Borough Council, Mr J Rogers, tabled a plan at the meeting of the council last evening showing that the fire column which is octagonal in shape, is 90ft in height and 30ft in diameter. He explained that the column would be lighted from the top in order that it might burn longer, and eight effigies, seven of prominent Germans and one of a Bulgarian, would be hung at the sides, about two-thirds of the way up. These would represent the Kaiser, the Crown Prince Hindenburg, Ludendorff, Von Mackensen, Von Tirpitz, Von Bissing, and King Ferdinand." 

NZ Herald, 17 June 1919 

 On the night of 22 June 1919, however, "mischief makers" set fire to it well ahead of schedule.

"From the summit the spectacle of the blazing pile was a very imposing one. The bonfire had been built within a circle of eight pine saplings, 100 ft high, firmly planted in the ground on the highest point of the mountain. Inside this circle were stacked pine boughs, gorse, fern, and other inflammable matter. Twenty barrels of tar were placed in the centre and large quantities of kauri gum "screenings" were deposited in different parts of the structure. In the centre was a circular draught hole wherein was placed a ladder, to be used for the lighting of the peace beacon. "At first the flames, were confined to one side but with a sudden change of wind to the south-west the entire stack became enveloped. Soon the lowest platform, erected 3ft from the ground in order to create a draught, gave way and the entire upper portion fell with a heavy crash, accompanied by the crackling of the pine boughs, and a faint hissing as the flames penetrated to the barrels of tar. Tongues of fire ran up the sides, and at about 9 pm the bonfire looked not unlike a lofty tower in flames. On one side showers of sparks were borne down with heavy clouds of smoke into the darkness below; on the other lay the mountain crater filled with strange shadows and overcast with a dull smoky glare. Crowds of spectators watched the burning of the pile, some apparently a little disappointed at the premature lighting of the fire, others cheering lustily or shrieking wildly as each support fell sending up a shower of sparks. At 10 pm rain fell, and at midnight nothing remained but a ring of blackened poles, a heap of embers, and a cloud of slowly rising steam." 

NZ Herald 23 June 1919

Some viewing the beacon's premature immolation thought the peace agreement had already been signed in Paris. Uh, no ... 

 Rumours flew around Auckland as to the culprits ...

"The Mount Eden bonfire appears to be getting on the nerves of its promoters. How else can one account for the suggestion that it was lit prematurely by pro-Germans? Why not carry the theory further and suggest that it was started by a German who had received a wireless message about the sinking of the battleships at Scapa Flow? Or why not blame the Bolsheviks, anybody but the bright-eyed Auckland boy or boys who did the deed! Certainly the youthful incendiarist was not pro-German, he was just a healthy New Zealander with a normal instinct of patriotism. He thought he would make sure of a celebration that night, and was relying upon the pride of the Peace Celebration Committee to give him an encore at the right time. The committee has gracefully decided not to disappoint him." 
NZ Herald, 28 June 1919 

So, they rebuilt the pyre. Taking suitable precautions ...

The Mount Eden bonfire is in course of re-erection, and raiding parties, whether they be larrikins or pro-Germans, will this time make a descent — or rather an ascent—against a prepared foe if they should again hazard the adventure of kindling the blaze before the scheduled time. Elaborate defensive precautions have been taken, and the fortifications are now considered to be impregnable. Day and night guards are mounted, and constant vigil is kept over the stack and the inflammable ingredients with which it will be anointed.
For the accommodation of the sentries a temporary guardhouse has been erected, while around the bonfire itself has been built a high barbed-wire entanglement to baffle the invaders should the guards be surprised. In a position calculated to reveal the whereabouts of the enemy, no matter by what direction he approaches or flees, has been suspended a large light, so that any attack other than a strong fighting patrol is foredoomed to failure. Little short of a raid with incendiary bombs or bullets will rob the Auckland citizens of their peace pyre." 

Auckland Star, 15 July 1919 

 Did it finally come off as planned? Yep.

 "The main event for the public on Saturday evening was the bonfire on Mount Eden. The pile was surmounted by a sign-board bearing the word "Kultur," and the skull and cross-bones, and the construction involved so much work that it was only completed at three o'clock in the afternoon. The fire was lit from the top, and burned very slowly at first, but a continuous volume of dense smoke and showers of sparks made a pretty effect. In about twenty minutes the sign-board on the top caught alight, and this was the signal for a great outburst of cheering from the onlookers. Shortly afterwards the superstructure collapsed, and then the fire began to burn vigorously, lighting up the whole of Mount Eden and being visible for miles. The fire was still burning when most people went to bed."

NZ Herald, 22 July 1919

A Pleasant Point Railway Easter

Bryan Blanchard from the Pleasant Point Museum and Railway sent these in the other day, writing: "Easter 2018 with The Silly Old Station Master  & Kiwi who gives the young children who come a free Easter egg, plus free face painting, popcorn & a bouncy castle."

Thanks, Bryan.