|Early Thames - rudimentary amenities were often death traps. (Looking south from Irishtown.)
The husband is quite distracted.
Rebecca Brown, 1873, Shortland cemetery.
"Mamma is down the well," five year old Janet Brown told her astonished neighbour Mrs Powell shortly before noon in May 1873. Mrs Powell, her husband and some other neighbours rushed to the well in Murphy's Lane, Block 27 at Shortland, Thames where they saw Rebecca Brown immersed in about four foot of water.
Thomas Johnston, a miner, immediately climbed into the well. He kept Rebecca's head above water but feared she was dead. Dr Lethbridge was sent for. Rebecca was pulled up from the well and frantic efforts to revive her were made by the gathered neighbours.
To his horror Mr Johnson then felt the body of a child at the bottom of the well.
Dr Lethbridge arrived, but it was too late, both mother and child were dead.
Rebecca was in the habit of inspecting the well daily to see what water was in it. It was supposed she was in the act of looking down with her small daughter, Sarah, in her arms when she became giddy and fell in. Rebecca had just weaned the child who had "been ailing from the effects of the milk."
The sad affair cast quite a gloom over the neighbourhood. "The husband is quite distracted," reported the Daily Southern Cross. He was left with two children - a boy and a girl.
The funeral of Rebecca Brown, aged 36, was largely attended with many women and children present.
An inquest was held at the Globe Hotel in Rolleston Street. Henry Brown, miner, stated he last saw his wife at 6.30 in the morning. He was sent for about 2 that afternoon and when he arrived home he found his wife and child dead.
The well was about three feet wide, 12 or 13 feet deep and had about four feet of water in it.
It had not been in use for some time and was always covered over with a lid. Rebecca was careful in keeping the well covered.
Five year old Janet Brown told her father that her mother went down to the earth closet at the end of garden. She took the baby with her. Her mother went to look at the water in the well, when the baby fell down and her mother jumped down after it. The little girl looked down the well and seeing her mother's hair, went for Mrs Powell.
When carefully and kindly questioned at the inquest Janet said her mother had a bad finger and the baby wrestled out of her hand. She saw her mother jump down after the baby.
Two of the jurymen - who were also neighbours and had been present at the time - believed Rebecca was still alive when Thomas Johnston went down the well. To Dr Lethbridge she appeared quite dead, but as he was informed there seemed to be some signs of life, he tried resuscitation but without effect. He felt Rebecca had fainted at the same time she fell into the well. He could not see how she could be drowned in so little water.
The jury returned the verdict that Mrs Brown "accidentally drowned in a well while endeavouring to save her child and that the death of the child was caused by its falling into a well."
Rebecca Brown and Sarah Brown were buried in the same coffin at Shortland cemetery.
Drowning in wells in the early days of European settlement was a frequent cause of death - children and the elderly were usually the victims.
Collecting water in the 1880s and early 1900s was a daily chore before town water supplies were introduced. Many collected water from their roofs into wooden barrels while others had wells. The need for water in keeping a house running meant it was quite a preoccupation of the housewife who had to carry it by the bucket load. Clothes washing, mopping wooden floors, cleaning dishes, cooking, drinking, bathing, keeping animals and vegetable gardens watered, wetting early earthen floors and keeping surfaces wiped free of the incessant dust all called for frequent visits to the well.
In 1869, four years before Mrs Brown's drowning, James Charles Smith, a little boy, was found drowned in a well near the English Church, Shortland at the Thames Goldfield. At the inquest the jury returned a verdict of "accidental death". A rider was added that it was desirable that all uncovered wells should be fenced in or otherwise protected so as to prevent accidents of this nature.
Two years later a little boy called Norton, aged two, fell into an open well in his backyard at the rear of the Odd Fellows Hall, Richmond Street. A man named Creeny was passing at the time and came to the assistance of the mother, lifting the "poor little fellow" out of the water. Dr Fox was sent for and immediately applied the usual remedies - but all efforts to restore animation were unsuccessful.
At Paeroa in 1907 a three and a half year old Maori boy drowned at Awaiti Pa. His mother and adopted mother gave evidence at the inquest that he was playing in the corn and when he was missed a search was made and his body found in the well.
In 1912, 18 month old Arthur James Turner of Port Charles went missing from his family home of Hillside Farm, Moehau. His parents, after searching for him, found him in the well at the back of the house.
(Source Papers Past, Sir George Grey Special Collections AWNS 7-A16669 )
© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert 2014