Friday, 18 July 2014

Fine, promising girls. Leonie and Viva Gillespie, 1891.

The Kauaeranga River - delightful, deceptive. 

In the late summer heat of 1891 the shaded banks and cool waters of the Kauaeranga River were irresistible to young girls trussed up in long skirts, boots, stockings, buttons and hats.

A small picnic party had left Parawai, Thames, about 11.15am on 31 March comprising  the two Perry girls and their aunt, Miss Carpenter, and the Gillespie girls - Leonie, aged 13 and Viva, 15.  They were cheerfully accompanied by Miss Carpenter's retriever dog. 

Leonie and Viva were from a large family overshadowed by their mother's death nine years before.  Sarah Theresa Gillespie had died after a lingering illness following  a severe cold caught after the birth of her tenth child, Ella Rose Mary.  The Gillespie's were well regarded - Henry Cameron Gillespie was the manager of the Kauri Timber Company (Shortland Sawmill).  Following  his wife's death, the vessels in port hoisted their flags to half mast and most of the tradesmen at Grahamstown and Shortland showed respect by putting up their shutters.  Two months after Sarah's demise, her ninth child,  Elizabeth Amy Irene,  died aged  17 months.    The Gillespie's had previously lost a 13 month  old daughter, Emma Lillie Marion,  in 1869.   Henry Gillespie  remarried in 1884;  Maria Cleave bravely taking on his  large brood.  

   Once up the Kauaeranga Valley the girls selected a spot under some trees near the river bank, below Mr Smith's orchard, opposite the Orphanage.

Just after 3pm they decided to bathe in the river, which was very shallow in places.
Viva went well out into the river, while Leonie and the Perry sisters just took off their boots and stockings and waded about.  Miss Carpenter was sitting on the bank reading a book.

After Viva had been in the water for some time, she said she would play at being drowned to see if Miss Carpenter's retriever dog would bring her out of the river.  She walked backwards and gradually got into deeper water, until she appeared somewhat exhausted.   Her sister Leonie, with her boots and stockings off, but otherwise fully dressed, waded in to her assistance.  When she reached her struggling sister she also got into difficulties when Viva caught her in her arms and clung to her.

Miss Carpenter rushed into the water fully dressed and the dog followed his mistress.
Miss Carpenter became exhausted and seeing it was impossible to do anything for the girls, she threw her arms around the dog's neck and he swam with her back to the bank where she was pulled to safety by the Misses Perry. Miss Carpenter was by then in a fainting condition.

The screams of the Perry sisters were heard by Stanley Smith and John Wallace who  were cutting ti-tree close to the river.  At first they thought they came from the Orphanage.  They ran down to the bank of the river where a frantic  Miss Carpenter said there were two girls in the water and pointed to the spot where they had sunk.

Dr Callan, who was returning from the Orphanage, also heard some cries and followed them  across the paddock and down to the river.  

Stanley Smith dived in but could not reach the girls. John Wallace, though, found them lying side by side, face downwards,  and succeeded in bringing them to the surface, but it was too late.   The bodies were laid on the bank.  Dr Callan arrived and tried to restore life, to no avail. 

Thames was greatly affected by the tragedy.   "The terrible mishap has cast a gloom over the town and much sympathy is felt for the parents in the loss of their two daughters whom were fine, promising girls and great favourites among their acquaintances," said the New Zealand Herald. 

Once again public sympathy for the Gillespie's was shown with flags flying at half mast from the vessels in port and from several public buildings. 

The Thames Star melodramatically reported  "both sisters, clasped in each other's arms, had sunk for the last time, and passed into eternity." 

Rather poignantly, the inquest was held in the Parawai schoolroom.  Miss Carpenter was suffering very much from shock and was not called to give evidence. The fatality was established to have occurred between the Orphanage bridge and the willows.  There was 30ft of water in the river in some places. Neither sister could swim.

Mary Perry told the Coroner  "It was a dangerous spot in the river and so deep as to form an eddy.  In one place the water was very shallow, but suddenly became very deep.  There was no notice posted up warning person's against bathing there."

John Wallace said  there was 10 or 12 feet of water where the girls drowned.  At that place it broke off very suddenly from shallow to deep water.  It was very dangerous to anyone walking along.  Dr Callan also told the coroner the spot where the fatality occurred was very treacherous.

The jury reached a verdict of accidentally drowned.  A rider was added that "the Thames County Council be requested to put up notices at the Orphanage bridge, the bluff, and at the willows, that these three places in the river are dangerous to bathers."

The Coroner praised Miss Carpenter.  Her  "conduct in endeavouring to rescue the deceased had been truly heroic, and for her bravery she must merit the admiration of everyone."

The committee of Parawai School sent out a request that the children of the school attend the funeral of their late companions.

The funeral was very largely attended by all classes of the community.  It was described as "perhaps one of the saddest that has ever taken place on the Thames."

Two hearses were employed and the coffins of the two sisters were carried by the employees of the Kauri Timber Company.  The cortege was preceded by the pupils of Parawai School and most of them carried small bouquets of white flowers in their hands. On each side of the hearses walked six young girls, numbering 24 altogether, carrying beautiful floral wreaths on their arms.
A short service and very touching and impressive address was given by Rev. Dr. O'Callaghan at St George's church.   After the service the procession made for the Shortland cemetery where the burial took place.
"Thus were laid to rest the two victims of the most pathetic tragedy that has occurred in this community," the Thames Advertiser lamented. 

Newspapers across the country picked up the story, but the lack of detail irked the Evening Post which growled "the circumstances of the bathing accident at the Thames, by which the two daughters of Mr H C Gillespie met their death, were sensational enough to give us ground for complaint that the local agents of the Press Association neglected to send even the bare facts."

And a few weeks after the tragedy 'Nemo' wrote to the editor of the Thames Advertiser that, although neither a Thames householder or ratepayer,  he took a lively interest in the place.  He had recently felt compelled to  visit Shortland cemetery after the interment of "those two dear girls who were drowned in the Kauaeranga River."  He was "surprised and pained to see the abominable state of the road leading to the cemetery: not an inch of footway in the whole length of the road, and for the most part the carriage way is composed of loose road metal that may do very well for the hearse, but it is purgatory for pedestrians . . . I do not blame the Borough or County Council . . .  surely the general public would be willing to subscribe a few pounds . . .  for a few loads of shell, sand or small gravel . . . the present state of things is disgraceful."

The Gillespie family grave at Shortland cemetery - here lie Henry Gillespie, his first wife Sarah and their daughter's Elizabeth, Leonie and Viva.  Also buried here is an unknown baby  who died two months after Henry.   Perhaps it is a grandchild.  No mention is made of 13 month old  old Emma Lillie Marion being buried here.

Henry Cameron Gillespie 

The sister's names were Isabel Viva Gillespie and  SarahTheresa Leonie Gillespie but they seemed to prefer being known by their more cosmopolitan' middle names.

Henry Cameron Gillespie was known as 'one of the landmarks of town.' The day he died in 1902 there were set of coincidences which are covered in the chapter "It may be my turn next" in the Dead Cert book currently being worked on.

(Thanks to Pauline Stammers)

Source: Papers Past, Cyclopaedia of NZ 1902, Sir George Grey Special Collections AWNS 1909 211-4-02.

© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert 2014

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