An incurable case.
John Davidson1891, Neavesville.
John Davidson1891, Neavesville.
On the road to that “outlandish place”, Neavesville (1909)
John Davidson wrote he was in a weak state of health and wished to know whether he could be admitted to the hospital. Sergeant Gillies promptly communicated with Mr Bruce, secretary of the Thames Charitable Aid Board.
Two men were urgently dispatched to Neavesville to bring Davidson to Puriri, from where he was to be taken to Thames Hospital. However when the men reached Neavesville, Davidson denied writing the letter and refused to leave his hut. Nothing further could be done in the matter.
Two or three weeks later Sergeant Gillies received a telegram from Constable Joyce of Tairua stating that a gum digger named John Davidson had been found dead in his hut at Neavesville. He suggested than an inquest should be held. The Charitable Aid Board, it seemed, had displayed a woeful lack of charity.
At the inquest John Carpenter, of Neavesville, said John Davidson had been ailing for the past four months and had been confined to bed for over a week suffering from dropsy.
John Carpenter had informed Sergeant Gillies that John Davidson was in a very bad state to which Sergeant Gillies replied a horse and conveyance had been sent up for him but Davidson would not leave his hut.
Finlay McLiver, another Neavesville resident, gave similar evidence. He added that if proper medical attention had been obtained he believed John Davidson’s life might have been saved.
Joseph Henry Meynoe stated that he was the one who wrote to Sergeant Gillies at John Davidson’s request asking for assistance to get him taken to Thames Hospital.
Two men came to Neavesville with a horse and told John Davidson they had a carriage at Puriri to take him to hospital. John Davidson said he could not ride and would not go with him although Joseph Meynoe did his best to persuade him.
The belligerent John Davidson had previously refused to get medical advice. After the attempt to take him to hospital failed no further application was made to the police or the Charitable Aid Board.
The furious jury found “that death resulted from natural causes” and added the rider that “in the opinion of the jury the life of the deceased might have been prolonged if he had medical assistance, and they hereby censure the Charitable Aid Board for gross neglect in not finding a doctor to see and prescribe for him; after they became aware that he could not be removed on horseback they should have seen to this.”
The Thames Charitable Aid Board was condemned in newspaper headlines throughout the country.
Neavesville at the time was miles from anywhere, a rumpty rustic settlement where gum diggers and bushmen were scattered about in rudimentary whares – huts – put together from whatever was at hand – ponga logs, nikau fronds, timber, corrugated iron, sod and sacking. The floors were beaten earth and bunks were made from sacking nailed to manuka frames. The more substantial dwellings were reached by a corduroy road - logs place over mud and bogs. Local papers referred to Neavesville as “that interesting place.” The bushmen and gum diggers complained of the stuff sold to them masquerading as liquor and, in the future, an irate drinker would take to Smith’s public house at Neavesville with an axe smashing the door and causing great alarm.
Gum diggers especially had a hard time of it. Although they required little – a gum spear, a spade, a pack and a cooking pan – they generally worked in miserable conditions for little return and barely earned enough to survive.
The year before John Davidson’s death Sergeant Gillies had received a letter from Malcolm McLiver reporting that the dead body of a man named Bowman had been found on the Tairua track, near Neavesville and this was not an uncommon occurrence.
The chastened Charitable Aid Board replied to the vote of censure passed on them by the Coroner’s jury at Neavesville. Mr Bruce, the secretary of the board had received a letter from Sergeant Gillies, signed John Davidson, which requested the writer be removed to hospital for treatment.
Mr Bruce immediately consulted with Sergeant Gillies and they decided to send the following morning a large ‘Courtland’ buggy to the foot of the Puriri range, with two men and three horses. One was a packhorse specially borrowed to convey the patient from his home to the buggy.
The men left at daylight and on nearing Davidson’s whare were joined by three Neavesville residents who went with them to help with the transporting of Davidson.
On entering his whare they found John Davidson able to ‘knock about’, suffering no pain, but his legs were swollen from dropsy. On telling him why they were there he refused to be removed. It was pointed out to him that he had written to the police asking to be taken to the hospital. He at first said his objection to the removal was that he could not stand the journey on horseback. The five men then consulted together and decided to improvise a stretcher and carry him over the range. On telling John Davidson he “stoutly declined” their offer and stated that he would not on any account move from his whare.
After two hours of vain effort to induce Davidson to accompany them, they left.
They returned to Thames about seven that evening and met with Mr Bruce. Mr Bruce called on Sergeant Gillies and asked him if he had any power to remove John Davidson. If so, Mr Bruce offered to go with a constable and staff of men in the morning and bring him back to the hospital. But Sergeant Gillies stated that the police had no power to remove the man against his will.
The following morning Mr Bruce called on the Medical Officer, Dr Callan, and gave John Davidson’s letter to him. Mr Bruce asked Dr Callan if he thought a visit would be of any use to Davidson. Dr Callan replied that, judging from the man’s letter, the case was one of acute dropsy. He was of the opinion that he could do no good by going to Neavesville. All he could do was advise the man to allow himself to be taken to hospital. Dr Callan said he would go if the Charitable Aid Board asked him to but the fee would be at least 10 pounds and 10 shillings.
The General Purposes Committee of the board approved of the steps taken and instructed Mr Bruce to undertake the necessary expense in having Davidson conveyed to the hospital as soon as it was ascertained he had changed his mind.
Charles McLiver, whose brother Finlay lived close to Davidson at Neavesville, told Mr Bruce that the residents of Neavesville were incensed at John Davidson’s conduct. The neighbourhood feared that in future cases of illness or help being needed it may not come owing to Davidson’s stubbornness reflecting on the district.
After reassuring Charles this would not be so, Mr Bruce asked him to ask his brother at Neavesville to be good enough to keep an eye on the obstinate Davidson. Any reasonable relief procured for Davidson would be paid for by the Board. If he could get Davidson to the hospital the Board would refund any transport costs immediately.
The beleaguered Mr Bruce heard nothing further until early October when Constable Joyce of Tairua wired asked if the Board would pay for carrying Davidson to the hospital. Mr Bruce wired back that the Board would pay all charges.
Mr Bruce in retrospect failed to see anything that had been left undone that should have been done, and “if a similar case was to arise tomorrow I would take the same steps.” He did not think he would be justified in putting ratepayers to the large expense of “uselessly attempting the cure of an incurable case in an outlandish place like Neavesville.”
A doctor’s visiting fee of 10 pounds, 10 shillings was unreasonable when the ratepayers had provided a properly equipped hospital to treat such cases as Davidson’s. Board members agreed the immediacy shown in the case by Mr Bruce deserved the heartiest commendation. They could not understand how the jury could have brought such a rider to their verdict as it was “manifestly contrary to the evidence.” Everything possible had been done and they had no power to forcibly remove the man from his whare.
The Board complimented Mr Bruce “upon the great promptitude shown by him in the case of Davidson...the Board fails to see how any blame whatever could rest with them.” Mr Renshaw of the Board took a swipe at Neavesville - had it not been for the fact that three men volunteered to remove Davidson, he would have moved a vote of censure on the neighbours.
The Charitable Aid Board’s explanation prompted a letter to the Thames Star from John Bowden, foreman of the Jury.
The facts of Mr Bruce’s efforts had not laid out before the jury. The only evidence they heard was the sending of two men and a packhorse for John Davidson and upon his refusal to go, they left him to starve or die. No evidence of any further action by the Charitable Aid Board was heard by the jury. To them it seemed 16 to 18 days elapsed and John Davidson was left to his fate until Constable Joyce at Tairua was wired some instructions to act and when he arrived at Neavesville the poor fellow as dead.
“I can only regret that Mr Bruce did not take some steps to place his statement before the jury, and thus prevent their getting in the false position of blaming, where nothing but praise and thanks seem due.”
Two months after John Davidson’s miserable death information was received from Neavesville by Sergeant Gillies that a bushman, destitute and of unsound mind, was roaming about on the Tairua Hill. As bushmen were coming into town for their Christmas holidays it was feared they may die for want of food as they had been supplying the distressed man. A constable was to be dispatched to inquire into the case and, if needed, bring the man into town and to the attention of the Charitable Aid Board.
John Davidson was more than likely buried by the Charitable Aid Board in a pauper’s grave, somewhere unmarked.
Charitable Aid and Hospital Boards ran early public hospitals where most people had to pay for treatment. People deemed to be paupers received treatment for free.
Charitable Aid was also a form of welfare providing financial relief to people in adverse circumstances. Applications to the Thames Charitable Aid Board came from the Tararu Old Men’s Home, the Old Women’s Home, the Orphanage and the Salvation Army. Sometimes the details of the recipients of charitable aid were publicised and made for wretched reading. Thames came under the umbrella of the Auckland Hospital and Charitable Aid Board. Attempts at abusing Charitable Aid were often made.
Sergeant Gillies must have become heartily sick of letters from Neavesville. The year after John Davidson’s death Sergeant Gillies again received a report a destitute gum digger named Flynn dying in the Hikutaia ranges and application was made to take him to Thames Hospital. A trap, a constable and another man were sent but on arriving at Flynn’s hut found the case had been greatly exaggerated and the man was quite well enough to find his own way to hospital. (12 months earlier the Board had been put to the expense of bringing Flynn from Tairua for medical treatment). A few weeks later Sergeant Gillies reported a man named Mason was in a destitute condition at Neavesville. He lay in his whare all day in a dirty rugged state and did not work. A trap, a constable and another man were sent yet again. Mason was in good health, strong, able to work and far from destitute – he had 70 pounds of gum in his whare and was about to carry it to Puriri to sell. Sergeant Gillies, although he tried, could find nothing that would “justify me in arresting him for lunacy.” Both cases were publicised as wild goose chases and being gross cases of imposture.
Dropsy is an old term for the swelling of soft tissue due to the accumulation of excess water, known today as odema.
Mr Alexander Bruce was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and arrived in NZ in 1864. In Auckland he worked for engineering firms and started a bakery and confectionary business before being lured to the Thames by the gold rush. He had no success goldmining but erected a quartz crushing machine before returning to Auckland. He worked as a pattern maker until his retirement and was active in local government. He was Mayor of Northcote and a street there bears his name. He was a member of the Auckland Hospital Board from where he kept a benevolent eye on Thames. His wife Mary died 30 years before him, and at the time of his death in 1917 only 6 of their 10 children were alive. As a public man he was noted for being “painstakingly consistent”, as was evident in the case of John Davidson.
Neavesville came into being after a gold reef was discovered on the upper reaches of the Tairua River in 1875 and man named John Neve pegged out his claim. Two settlements promptly appeared – one by gum digger’s huts which had been deserted when an epidemic of measles swept through it, which was named Measletown. The other was named ‘Upper Township’ but at a resident's meeting it was re-christened Neavesville in honour of Mr John Neves who discovered the goldfield.
For more on the spelling of Neavesville see Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 49, September 2005 ‘Neavesville or Nevesville?”
(Sources: Papers Past, Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 49, Cyclopaedia of NZ 1902)
© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert, 2013