Monday, 17 February 2014



Frank O'Neill and Constable Brooking, 1896, Waihi cemetery.

Waitekauri township - in need of "efficient control."

 "Constable Brooking left Onehunga today for the Upper Thames," announced the Thames Star in April 1896,  a decision which effectively sealed the Constable's fate.

Several changes had been mooted for the staffing of the Thames and up-country police force, and Constable Brooking was now to be stationed at  Waitekauri-Waihi.  Waitekauri had been the scene of continual disturbances and "some efficient control" was thought "absolutely necessary. " 

 Described as an old, well tried officer, Constable Brooking so enjoyed his new post he sent for his wife and family in Onehunga, and they were promptly installed in the police residence.  Constable Brooking had a week of a country policeman's ordinary work, and then came the call which took him off the beaten track.

  A body had been  found at the bottom of a disused pass in the Martha Mine, Waihi.

It was suspected to be that of Frank O'Neill, who had disappeared about six weeks previously.    The body was head downwards and to some degree embedded in the mullock.  It was naked.

 The pass was an adit pass - a horizontal entrance to an underground mine.  It was barricaded off from the rest of the mine, and there was a small eight inch gap between the  heavy nine inch planks. 

On March 26 the pass  had been filled within 20 feet to the top. Work on leveling gradually reduced the mullock in the pass and brought the body down to where it was discovered.

Constable Brooking found near the body  some clothes so badly stained with dirt they were almost impossible to identify.  A small drawstring bag containing some lunch was found as well.

The body, which appeared to have a broken neck, was taken to the Sterling Hotel. No-one was able to positively assert it was O'Neill, but it was the general opinion that it was.

The Waihi correspondent informed the Thames Advertiser that the "gruesome news is only too true."

There was "an air of incomprehensibleness" about the discovery.  It was thought impossible that Frank O'Neill could have fallen through the gap, and improbable that he could have removed all his clothes.  "The excitement and horror is general."

 Frank O'Neill had only worked in the mine at the Welcome Lode  a few weeks.  He had eleven children and a wife to keep.   He had come from Cambridge for work, and had lived and worked around  Waihi for the previous  nine months.

At the inquest, James O'Neill, his son,  identified  a watch, trousers, shirt and hose belonging to his father, who he last saw alive after coming off shift on Saturday morning 28 March.  

James O'Neill  said he  went to his  father's tent about 11 am on Tuesday morning, and  saw his best coat at the head of the bunk. He also saw some letters from his mother lying in the tent. James  thought Frank  should be at the tent at that time to boil the billy and be getting ready to go on the 4 pm to midnight shift.  He then looked about town for his father and,  not finding him, told Constable Pardy he was missing.

His father had complained of not feeling well two weeks previously, otherwise he was in good health. Frank O'Neill sometimes drank but not to excess.

G Hartmann, a miner, said he had been looking for Frank O'Neill  to pay him.

William Mather, a clerk, had known Frank O'Neill about seven years.  He did not think his financial difficulties were of such a nature as to cause Frank to commit suicide.  William Mather concluded that O'Neill had gone to Waitekauri for work.

Albert Davies, a miner, said he was working the west end of the stopes, shoveling  under number four pass, when he came on a man's boot.  He noticed a strong smell, and thought something was wrong.  He then saw another boot and the sleeve of a shirt sticking out.  He said to a mate with him, "I'll bet anything it's the body of the missing man."
They continued shoveling and the next fall of earth brought the body down with it.

Frederick McAlpine, whose duty it was to look after the safety of the passes, was of the opinion it was not possible for anyone to fall accidentally down the pass between the plank and the rails -  the plank would first require removing before anyone could get down.

For Frank to get where he was found from the Welcome Lode,  he would have had to crawl - he could not walk the whole distance. There were barricade bars he would have had to remove and he would have had to go over five planked over passes.   No 4 pass was a disused part of the mine.  No one had any business there.

Dr Wright confirmed Frank's neck was broken, and his skull fractured, resulting in  instantaneous death.  Frank's  watch was in a leather pouch and had stopped at 11 o'clock.

The jury reached an open verdict. But then, in an unusual move,  they decided to reconsider their verdict.  When they returned a second time, the foreman announced that four of the jury found the deceased came to his death by accident.

The coroner summed up saying the evidence was of a suspicious nature and it seemed to him the man could not have died accidentally.  He  took steps to have the matter placed before the Justice Department to have a magisterial inquiry.

Waihi mine from Martha Hill, the Welcome shaft to the right.

 Five  days after Frank O'Neill was found, Constable Brooking, whose duty it had been to  look the  body until  it was handed over to Dr Wright, was reported to have contracted an inflammation of the lungs and  blood poisoning. 

 He was seriously ill through, it was thought,  inhaling injurious gases from the body.   His assistant had one finger poisoned through cleaning knives in the post mortem examination as well. 

"Constable Brooking deserves the greatest credit for the humane and unselfish way in which he did service to the dead," said the Thames Advertiser.  Constable Brooking rallied and took a turn for the better.   A wire was sent to Auckland to temporarily  fill his place while he was on the sick list.

Dissatisfaction, though,  was being freely expressed at the finding of the jury.  The Thames Advertiser received a telegram saying there was reason to believe the body found in the Martha shaft was not Frank O'Neill but some other person.  "Further particulars," said the paper, " are not obtainable."

An opinion in the Thames Advertiser echoed what many felt.   "The inquest on Frank O'Neill... ended with a verdict which seemed to be a remarkable one...not withstanding the fact that the body was entirely nude, and that the plank covering the pass of which it was found was not disturbed, and only left an uncovered space of 8 inches, the jury brought in a verdict of accidental death....The weight of evidence is distinctly against the verdict, and leads one to the assumption that, as a matter of fact, there has been either suicide or foul play."

Rumours were rife -   at the same time O'Neill disappeared, another man was missed, and had not been seen or heard of since.  There were also stories of quarrels amongst O'Neill and others.  "I feel convinced we have not heard the last of it," added the newspaper enticingly. 

 Frank O'Neill had supposedly  been seen ' in the flesh'  at Te Aroha, and the fact that the police department were sending Detective Grace to the locality seemed to show there was very little confidence placed in the verdict of accidental death.

It was thought unlikely O'Neill had committed suicide - his feelings for his family were evident.  There were letters from his wife in his tent.  He had left Cambridge   "with the intention of working to secure them the necessaries of life." Frank had  spoken of his responsibilities, and had said if his occupation at Waihi was not profitable, he would go over to Waitekauri for work.  He had money due to him and it was ready to be handed over.  But if it was murder, the motive for removing his clothing was the point at which those speculating became "befogged."

Almost one month to the day that Constable Brooking had taken up his new position at Waihi, he was dead.  He had evidently died from  "the effects of blood poisoning from contact with the corpse found in the Martha Mine."  He left a widow and five children.

There was intense feeling throughout the district over Brooking's death.

The Thames Advertiser commented that "the saddest feature of all in connection with the Waihi mystery is Constable Brooking's death...he does his disagreeable duty, he succeeds but at what cost?... a brave man has died at his post."

Constable Brooking had been busy with the remains for at least an hour and a half at a stretch.  He had smoked continuously in the belief the smoke would protect him, but took no other precautions  against the "deadly fumes" rising from the body.

A doctor, in making a post mortem examination, wore a respirator, and worked in three minute intervals.

The Hauraki Tribune suggested that whiskey, of which there was "plenty available at Waihi", could have been  sprinkled on a handkerchief and held tight under the mouth.  This would have prevented the septic pneumonia from which Constable Brooking died.

"There is a feeling of grave dissatisfaction amongst the public with the police arrangement throughout the whole district to which the stereotyped cry of economy is no answer.  There is absolutely mismanagement somewhere," growled the paper.

Although he had been in Waihi a short time, Constable Brooking  had made many friends by his quiet, unassuming and courteous bearing.  His pitiful and sudden death came  as a great blow to the community.  It was felt that  Constable Brooking died nobly in the execution of his duty.

A shuffle of policemen followed.   Constable Crean proceeded to Thames to replace Constable Clifford, who had taken place of the late Constable Brooking at Waihi. Constable Butler arrived to relieve Brooking.  Detective Grace was in Waihi carrying on investigations.

 Some newspapers were now openly suggesting Frank O'Neill's death was murder, and that the homicide was the act of the maniac who, some weeks previously, had entered a pig sty and killed one of Mr Saunders pigs, dragging  the body about in the paddock and leaving it half a mile away.  "If we have a homicidal maniac in our midst the sooner we get hold of him and place him where he will be harmless the better...It is alleged that another man called Stuart is missing from Waihi...."

 Dr Wright, who was infected with blood poisoning while making O'Neill's post mortem , made a complete recovery, as did his assistant. Now Mrs Brooking  was reported as  suffering from blood poisoning, contracted while nursing her late husband. 

The report of  Frank O'Neill being in Te Aroha lacked confirmation, and speculation and rumour began to fade.   The saintliness around Constable Brooking also began to tarnish.  

Thomas Gilmour, Waihi mine manager, wrote to the Thames Advertiser contradicting a "very injurious and lying statement made in the Waihi Miner",  which had stated that while all others hung back, Constable Brooking, unaided, brought the body out and took it to the Sterling Hotel.  This was untrue - five miners worked very courageously  and assisted in digging out and carrying the dead man.  The constable did not assist in extracting the body, rather he delayed the work by searching every bit of clothing dug out. 

By early  June,  energetic steps were being taken in Cambridge to aid the widow and eleven children of Frank O'Neill, who met with "such a painfully sad and mysterious death in the Martha Mine."  The Oddfellows formed a committee to collect subscriptions, a dramatic entertainment was "got up", and the Good Templar Lodge was also raising money.  The intention was to pay off Mrs O'Neill's mortgage. 

Police disorder continued.  "We are sorry to hear that Constable Clifford, now stationed at Waihi, is on the sick list.  He is the eighth police officer sent to Waihi within ten months and Constable McAnley, who is relieving him, makes the ninth."

  The widow Brooking was reported to have  suddenly received a wire from the  Government requesting her to proceed to Auckland, escorted by  Constables Clifford and Beattie.   A cheque for her late husband's salary  had not been sent to her, neither had she received any promises of assistance.  A quick collection raised 20 sovereigns in three hours.   Presenting the money,  James Galbraith spoke in feeling terms about Constable Brooking, saying that that he died like a hero at his post.  Mrs Brooking was visibly affected in returning thanks. 

 It was felt that the dispatch of Mrs Brooking was  "very cruel to say the least."
Constable Brooking's successor by the same post had received his salary cheque.

 "Exit Mrs Brooking,"  announced the Thames Advertiser.  "...her case is being debated in the House...she leaves behind her universal sympathy and good wishes for her welfare."

Mrs Brooking and family left Waihi by buggy in time to catch the steamer at Paeroa enroute for Auckland  less than two months after they had arrived with such high hopes.

A few weeks later,  Mrs Brooking said the statements published regarding her departure from Waihi were untrue.  The delay in Mrs Brooking receiving her husband's back pay was a hold up of official forms.  As soon as a  telegram came from Wellington, not a quarter of an hour was lost in communicating with Mrs Brooking. She had expressed a wish to go to Auckland, and to prevent the cheque from crossing her en route, it was kept in Auckland for a few days so that she might get it immediately on arrival. 

  Inspector Hickson made strong overtures to the Government that the widow should be liberally treated as he husband had died in the faithful discharge of duty under very distressing circumstances.   Medical and funeral expenses were defrayed by the Police Department.  She had not been peremptorily asked to  vacate the station residence - she herself expressed the desire to return to Auckland.  While waiting the night for a coach,  the department paid her hotel bill and all removal expenses. 

The government passed a compassionate allowance of 18 months salary to Mrs Brooking. Constable Brooking also had his life insured for 350 pounds.

The widow O'Neill, meanwhile, had her  mortgage paid off in August with money donated from the public.  The balance was given to her to  make a livelihood and provide for the family now dependent on her.   The Miners Union had contributed 50 pounds, Frank fortunately having joined  the union a few days before his death.
Some rooms were added to the house and a working bee was held to fence the land.  Mrs O'Neill  intended going into the dairying business.

In mid-August, Colonel Hume, Commissioner of Police,  said Chief Detective Grace had made a thorough investigation and could come to no other conclusion but that the unfortunate man. Frank O'Neill, had met his death by accident, a conclusion which the Auckland Stipendiary Magistrate concurred in.

 Detective Grace had succeeded in establishing the identity of Frank O'Neill.  He was satisfied the death was the result of an accident.  His concluded that Frank, while in a semi intoxicated state, entered the mine in the horse tunnel instead of going down in the cage from the brace, and that he wandered off into the portion of the mine where the pass was, into which he fell a depth of 25 feet.  He didn't think Frank was killed by the fall, but,  finding himself unable to get out, he became delirious and stripped himself while in that state.  His neck was probably broken by the mullock which fell on him.  As to the barricade,  the detective thought Frank could have got past it without disturbing it.  The plank over the mouth of the pass was only  a moveable board which shifted easily from side to side.

Dissatisfaction over the handling  of the Waihi mystery,  as it came to be known, was discussed at the Thames Prohibition League's meeting. Mr E H Taylor expressed his opinion that O'Neill did not meet his death by fair means, and he hinted at the man being drugged and put away.  He also said a fair police report had not been given, and he added a few other remarks, "which we dare not publish on account of the absurd libel law." He said a good deal was known about the affair which would not be divulged  as those in possession of the facts had their bread and butter to make, and if they said too much their means of livelihood might go.  Mr Serpell said it appeared to him that there had been an apparent desire to hush up details.  A protest was forwarded to the Minister of Justice detailing the dissatisfaction the  Thames Prohibition League felt at the unsatisfactory nature of Detective Grace's report into the strange death of Frank O'Neill.


Although a question mark still remains over what really happened to Frank O'Neill,  we now know that the effects hypothermia can lead to the removal of clothes - a symptom known as Paradoxical Undressing.  When cold temperatures cause the body to lose heat quickly, the heart rate becomes slow and weak and blood vessels widen.  This will make a person feel hot and confused, and want to remove their clothes.  Unconsciousness and death soon follow. 

Frank O'Neill was buried at Waihi cemetery according to newspaper reports, although his burial is not in online cemetery records.
 I was unable to find where Constable Brooking was buried, but it was probably somewhere in Auckland.

(Source: Papers Past 1896, Sir George Grey Special Collections AWNS 19010829-7-2 & AWNS 19050504-8-2)

© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert 2014


Meghan Hawkes said...

Hi Meghan,
I have just discovered your great story about Frank O'Neill's death in the Martha Mine. My maternal grandmother, Ellen Jane Read (nee O'Neill) was one of his daughters. Nana's eldest brother, our Great Uncle Jim (the 16year old James in the story) told Mum's cousin about Gt Grandfather Frank's death many years ago - according to Uncle Jim his father was murdered, & a man that Frank used to go down the mine with was never seen again. I have, over the last few years, gathered together all I could find in Papers Past about the case. It certainly makes for interesting reading !!
I have been "doing" genealogy for about 40 years & have quite a bit of info on the O'Neill's. I am 75 & unfortunately born at a time when one did not ask too many questions of one's elders so sadly I never discussed Nana's father's death with her. In fact, thinking back, I may not have even been told about the circumstances of his death. Gt Uncle Jim had died before I was really interested in our "Family Tree". I hope you don't mind me contacting you. I thought you might like to know that one of Frank's descendants had found your article & enjoyed reading it.
It sounds like you have written some interesting books. I will have to find out more about them. Thanks for writing about Gt Grandfather, Regards, Bobye Hawes.

Barry Roberts said...

Hi Meghan,
I came across this article by accident when looking for cemetry sites of my own grandparents in the Waihi Cemetry.
My Grandfather was a miner and and also farmed in Waitekauri having originated from a mining family in Australia. My father was born in Waitekauri and spent his school years and teenage years in the community. He told me many years ago about Frank O'Neills death and the controversy it caused. According to him most of the local community firmly believed Frank had been murdered. Your articles certainly bring back memories Mehgan - Thank you
Regards Barry Roberts

Meghan Hawkes said...

Hi Barry - It certainly is a curious case! Imagine if it happened today with forensics etc - I'm sure there would be a different outcome. Thank you for commenting and all the best with your cemetery searches. Kind regards, Meghan

Post a Comment