Sunday, July 31, 2022

The lonely death of David Snodgrass

Part of the block of West Queen Street between Wyndham (left) and Swanson Streets, from 1865. David Snodgrass' bakery would have been around the fourth building from the corner. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 4-415

Early Auckland baker David Snodgrass died, alone and far from his home, in the early hours of April 20 1895.

He was born in Leith, Scotland, on 16 March 1820, and arrived here in Auckland in 1842 aboard the Ben Nevis. By 1847, he’d set himself up in business near the northern corner of Wyndham and Queen Streets, and was there through to 1855. In 1851 he even took over the Dangar steam flour mill in Official Bay, before building his own mill on Wyndham Street above his bakery. He then detoured his career path to becoming publican at the Carriers arms on the Panmure Road, until 1861.

That was when he set up his earlier business afresh on Khyber Pass Road, obtaining the baking goods supply contract for Mt Eden Gaol. In 1869, he left to attempt to build a hotel in Panmure, then headed for Thames, taking advantage of the gold rush.

He finally settled in Paeroa, obtained swathes of land from which he earned a good income, and worked as a baker until around 1892 when he finally retired.

In April 1895, he decided he wanted to return to Auckland. Exactly why, no one seemed at all sure, including his own family.

 On the night of 19 April, a cabman named David Patterson found 75 year old David Snodgrass between 8pm and 9pm lying on his face on the footpath outside the Waverley Hotel at the corner of Customs and Queen Streets. Patterson later testified that he’d known Snodgrass 20 years, so he stopped, picked him up, and took him to the Albion Hotel in Hobson Street around 9.30 pm. Snodgrass wasn’t speaking at all, so Patterson handed him over to the Albion’s publican, James Morrice, and left.

Morrice took Snodgrass up to a bedroom, and helped him to a bed. Snodgrass’ legs were shaky, Morrice said later, but he could speak sensibly. Around fifteen minutes after settling Snodgrass into the room for the night, Morrice spotted him coming downstairs without his trousers on. Morrice took Snodgrass to his room again, but at 10 pm Snodgrass was downstairs again, insistent that he wanted to go home. Morrice gave him his boots, and Snodgrass left.

Apparently the last to see Snodgrass alive was another cab driver, John Monaghan. Snodgrass hailed him, and asked to be taken to a blacksmith named McGuire. Monaghan knew of no one by that name, so conveyed his passenger instead to the Pier Hotel in Albert Street, and left him in the hotel’s commercial room.

Around 3.30 am the next day, a watchman aboard the Melanesian Mission schooner Southern Cross spotted “a black object in the water of the harbour,” between the dry dock and Hobson Wharf. The object floated closer to the schooner, and the watchman snagged it with a line and fastened it to the vessel. Realising it was a body, he contacted the police, and David Snodgrass’ remains were identified.

After the inquest, he was taken home and buried at Paeroa.

No one testified that Snodgrass was drunk that night. He may have had something of a heart attack, or a stroke, or bumped his head. By the sounds of it, he was a confused man, with next to no money on him at the time, leaving his gold watch and chain behind at the Albion where it was later found. If he’d been kept safe that night, he might have survived, and gone home to his family.

But, the folks who came across him could probably only do so much. Not enough, though, to stop his life ending in the waters of the Waitemata Harbour.

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