Thursday, December 10, 2020

John Bonfield O'Mealy -- losing a family in the gap

Researching a life, the further back you go, means there will always be gaps. Gaps in which something happened that changed that life, often for the worse, but exactly what is lost or when or why isn't known, or at least not readily available to discover. 

I first came across John Bonfield O’Mealy when I was researching and pulling together stuff on Te Wai Horotiu back in 2017. I found the colour version of his 1842 plan of Auckland town (image detail here, from National Library) and thought how well it showed the true early course of the stream, before the Ligar Canal was added to divert part of the water from below Wyndham Street. O’Mealy showed clearly that the stream didn’t flow down Queen Street really, it was more or less parallel to it. 

Then, while researching Maungawhau this year, I looked again at a scan of a very battered, ripped and incomplete map from December 1843 of the area of the maunga and its surrounds – and saw O’Mealy’s signature again. Sort of like an old friend popping back into view. 

John Bonfield O’Mealy was born somewhere in Ireland, around 1810. He was appointed as an assistant surveyor in April 1841 and arrived in Wellington with Charles Ligar and the rest of Ligar’s survey department, along with his wife Elizabeth, aboard the Antilla on 8 December 1841. This after the ship they had been on originally, the Prince Rupert, wrecked off the Cape of Good Hope. 

He and his wife had three children, all born in New Zealand, and they lived at “Glen Ligar”, somewhere near Official Bay, beside Charles Ligar and his family. The name of the O’Mealy family home, “Acacia Cottage,” may be just a coincidence with the Acacia Cottage later connected with Dr John L Campbell. O’Mealy’s cottage was on two acres, had five rooms, and a “three-roomed kitchen”. In 1850, the O’Mealys left Auckland, bound for San Francisco. 

They show up on an 1850 census at Trinity, California, a place of gold panning and wild dreams, where many Chinese worked hard as well to win riches from the ground. O’Mealy described himself then as a miner, so was apparently taking advantage of the gold rush fever of the time. There are traces of O’Mealy in America through to 1859, where in 1958 and 1859 he won prizes at state fairs for penmanship and topographical drawings. 

Then, he reappears in the Southern Hemisphere in 1863, his signature on a survey plan once again, this time for Dromana in Victoria, Australia. From this point, though, there is no mention of his family. He became a district surveyor by 1868 for the district of Inglewood, but by 1870 was heavily in debt. O’Mealy apparently did drink more than a fair bit, but in 1875 suddenly decided to quit and go absolutely tee-total. Later, some cast the opinion that he was “mad as a March Hatter” at times, and going stone dry suddenly didn’t help. 

One day in 1876, in a barn, he rigged up a razor on a piece of wood so it wouldn’t slip, had a large knife handy in case he needed that as a plan B, and slit his own throat. He died intestate, and his estate, what there was of it, went to his creditors after advertisements placed in the newspapers for a widow or other family led to no results. 

He wasn’t without friends, though. Four members of the community, two of them his fellow surveyors, carried his coffin to a Roman Catholic cemetery, and set to in digging his grave before a service there by the local Church of England minister. No one could say, at the inquest, if O’Mealy had been thinking of suicide before he did the deed or not. 

 But somewhere in the gap, both in time and across an ocean, he had parted ways for some reason with his family, and so died alone. He has, though, left behind something of a legacy for his time on the planet.

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