Friday, August 5, 2022

John Watson’s trees: the Boy Who Ran

At 63 Riversdale Road in Avondale, there stands a protected, heritage scheduled Norfolk Pine. About 80 metres away in Riversdale Reserve stands another Norfolk Pine that isn’t heritage scheduled. Both, though, appear to be linked to a single story. One man owned the land on which both trees now stand, from 1907 through to 1919, when the part now included in Riversdale Reserve was sold to another owner. It is possible that both trees are over 100 years old. The one at 63 Riversdale Road, at least, is definitely connected with the man I’m about to talk about, seeing as he died in 1929, and his family finally relinquished the rest of his property in the late 1940s.

That man was John Watson, born 4 August 1845 at Llanbryd (now Llanbryde) near Elgin in Morayshire, Scotland. He was the eldest son of John Watson and Margaret née Proctor. In 1859, John Watson senior left his family in Scotland to take up a job as farm manager for an Auckland merchant named James Burtt, on Burtt’s farm near Paerātā (now 77 Burtt Road), north-east of Pukekohe. Margaret and the rest of the family arrived aboard the Black Eagle in November 1861, and settled with him on Burtt’s farm.

The early 1860s was a traumatic time for the area around Pukekohe, with the simmering forces boiling over to all-out war in the Waikato, following on from the Taranaki conflict in 1860. The Watson family, and the name Burtt’s Farm, are now part of New Zealand Land Wars history. One of the iwi with mana whenua at Paerātā are the Ngāti Tamaoho, whose pā tauā, Te Māunu a Tūmatauenga, stood atop a high ridge of ground. It had been a place of many battles over centuries. The site would see another battle in September 1863, due to the fact that when the Crown had taken over the land in the 1850s, selling it to local farmers and city speculators, the ridge and the pā site became part of Burtt’s farm, and there he had a house built, up on that same ridge, for his manager, John Watson and Watson’s family. The ridge became known to settlers as Burtt’s Bluff.

What exactly triggered the attack on the farmhouse on 14 September 1863 is still not absolutely clear. Most of the information about that day, during which a church at Pukekohe East was also attacked and besieged, with a number of deaths on both sides, comes of course from the narrative of surviving settlers and later commemorations in the media. According to a report prepared by Ngāti Tamaoho themselves from February 2021, their papakāinga and maara kai had been looted and destroyed back in July 1863 by “colonial militia from Pukekohe, Patumāhoe, Mauku, Paerātā and the surrounding lands” so the attack on Burtt’s Farm was in response to that action. Another report, by Te Tupu Ngātahi claims that “the battle began after the farm manager Mr Watson was spotted erecting fences on Ngāti Tamaoho land.”

On the morning of the attack, around 10 am (according to the account by Land Wars historian James Cowan, published early 1920s), Mrs Watson was lying ill in her bed in the house, while her husband John was out fencing with another son Robert, and another farm worker named Hugh McLean was ploughing a field toward the west with eldest Watson lad John, aged 18. The attack began with shots fired at John Watson senior and 14 year old Robert at the fence line, mortally wounding the latter. The Maori attacking that day surrounded the farmhouse with a dozen men, cutting it off from both John Watson senior’s party, and Hugh McLean with the younger John Watson. McLean and Watson apparently faced 10 attackers, McLean firing on them.

Young John Watson had left his own rifle at home that day, so taking off his work boots, he left McLean and ran barefoot to get help, finding his brother William working elsewhere on the farm. Together, they reached Drury and sounded the alarm, an armed force quickly setting out from that settlement.

Meanwhile, those Maori who were besieging the farmhouse fired into the doors and windows, Mrs Watson diving under her bed. One of her two daughters there with her, Mary Ann, got away, and freed the family’s dog to rush at the attackers (the dog was killed). Mary then ran to one of the neighbours, but they’d already heard the shots, and were coming with their employees to the rescue, all armed. The attackers were driven off.

The Watson family and their workers were escorted into Drury, where Robert died later in a military hospital. McLean’s body was found later in a swamp. He’d been shot through the heart and his rifle taken. Later, once the war had ended, the Watson family returned to the farm, but in 1874 Burtt sold the property. This is probably when John Watson senior and his wife Margaret moved to Buckland further south, where Margaret died in 1878, and where he died in 1895. James Burtt, the man who probably originally brought the Watsons to the country, died in 1908.

Meanwhile John Watson the younger married Irish-born Bridget Tobin in 1868. While John had been baptised in a Scottish Presbyterian church, from that point on his own family were Catholic. He appears to have settled in Puni, to the south-east of Pukekohe, and lived there through to 1907. One son, William, died in 1891 aged only seven. Another, his eldest son Alexander aged 25, met with a tragic accident in 1894 while driving a wagon along the Piako Road at Hamilton. Something frightened his horse – some reports say it was the sight of a Maori sitting beside the road – and it bolted. Alexander fell, and one of the wheels went over him. He died a few hours later in hospital. Another son, named John, died aged 35 at Puni in 1905.

John Watson bought the Riversdale Road property from the estate of George Willey by April 1907, but the deal would have been finalised months earlier, as he’d sold up his farm goods at Puni in February that year. He would be known to his last days, off and on in the press when someone brought up the siege at Burtt’s Farm, as the boy who ran to get the troops.

In July 1919, he transferred half, seven and a half acres, to Harry McLeod, and that part went to Auckland City Council in 1990 as part of Riversdale Reserve, after being designated in 1977. When Watson died, the remaining seven and a half acres at 63 Riversdale Road was left to his two unmarried daughters, Margaret and Annie Watson. When Margaret, who lived there in the 1930s and 1940s died in October 1946, Annie inherited her sister’s share and in 1949 transferred the land to the Auckland Catholic Diocese. Half of that was taken for state housing in 1950, and the remainder was subdivided by the church authorities in the 1960s.

So, two trees on an Avondale street, one scheduled, and the other not. There’s probably no way of knowing how old they really are, but I do think that if one is scheduled, then the other on the Auckland Council reserve, even more of a streetscape landmark in the neighbourhood, should be protected as well. They are two remaining links we have with both the market gardening and orchardist heritage of Rosebank Peninsula – and with those events in that tragic war that took place on our island nearly 160 years ago.

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