|Boys, bush and bullets. A creek near Paeroa.|
For the four lads out on an impromptu shooting expedition on an April afternoon in 1881 the excursion was a high spirited, late summer adventure. The intended quarry was duck and pigeon of which there were plenty on farmland near Puke, Paeroa. Earlier that morning, about 10am, Thomas Cashen, jnr, aged 14, and Fred Lipsey, 17, had set out - Fred carrying his double barrelled breech loading, pin fire Sniper. They walked towards the junction and crossed the river near Haora Tareranui's settlement, passing near Mr Lipsey's farm.
About 12pm they saw Walter Ritchie, aged 13, on the opposite side of the river. Walter was also hunting and had a gun with him. Fred and Thomas re-crossed the river and Walter joined them. They all walked down to Mr Moore's and there 11 year old Ernest Moore joined the group. The boys, with youthful exuberance, crossed the river again and once opposite Mr Snodgrass' went some distance below his house to a fig tree. They picked some figs and then their attention was caught by a shag sitting in a willow tree. Walter aimed his gun and fired at the shag while Fred discharged both barrels of his gun and then re-loaded. While Fred was reloading, they saw another shag and Fred called out to Walter "I am going to fire" at the same time raising his gun. Walter was standing about a yard and a half on the left side of Fred when he inexplicably shifted his position in front of Fred's gun. The gun went off and shot Walter in the head.
Lewis Snodgrass was on his farm near Puke at 3 pm when he heard shots on the other side of the river. A short time later he heard another shot, followed immediately by the sound of boys crying out "O heaven, what shall we do!" Lewis took his boat and went over the river to see what the matter was. On arriving on the other side he found three boys - Frederick, Ernest and Thomas, who were in great distress. They told him Walter Ritchie was shot. Ernest pointed in the direction and Lewis Snodgrass found Walter lying on his back. It was about seven yards from the bank of the river, on open ground. A distraught Fred said to Lewis Snodgrass "What shall I do - the gun went off accidentally and I shot him."
At the inquest, held at Paeroa Hotel, young Thomas Cashen said he thought the reason Walter had stepped in front of the gun was to prevent Fred from firing until Walter was ready to shoot too. "After the accident," said Thomas, "we all ran away screaming."
Lewis Snodgrass testified that he heard no sound of dispute or quarrelling before the shot was fired. Two of the boys had told him that when Fred was in the act of firing, Walter ran in front of him and was shot, but the shock and speed of events possibly distorted their recall.
The jury found that Walter Ritchie met his death by a gunshot wound and that it was purely accidental and a misadventure.
Walter was the son of Mr John Ritchie, the respected headmaster of the Paeroa public school. "Deep gloom was cast over the inhabitants of Paeroa, Ohinemuri and the whole adjacent district ," noted the Thames Advertiser when news of Walter's death broke.
To add to the family's distress an elder brother of Walter's was lying at Thames in a most critical condition, having recently come out of hospital. "If sympathy could alleviate this new affliction of the parents, there is an abundant outpouring of it in Paeroa now . . . "
Walter was buried on the outskirts of Paeroa in spite of the law providing for burial in public cemeteries only. There was no cemetery in Paeroa then. Walter's death saw " a strong feeling prevalent in Paeroa which this fatal accident may bring to a climax - that a local cemetery for such a populous district must be provided at once."
The lack of a cemetery at Paeroa was the subject of a Pigeongram flown to the Thames Advertiser in February 1878 which noted that “the wife of Mr Thomas Shaw (Foreman of the Works in this district) died yesterday...owing to the want of a cemetery here her remains will have to be conveyed to the Thames for sepulchre.” In 1882 Paeroa submitted a request to parliament for the setting aside of a piece of ground for a local cemetery and was finally successful. Later that year a cemetery committee arranged the fencing, ploughing, harrowing and sowing of a one acre block, ‘Pukerimu’, for a cemetery.
John Ritchie was the first headmaster of Paeroa school (1875-1884). In 1876 he opened a part time school at Mackaytown, while Mrs Ritchie continued teaching at Paeroa. When Mr Ritchie left Paeroa he went teaching in Northland. He returned to Ohinemuri, opening the Karangahake and Owharoa schools. He died 21 October 1901, aged 70.
Mrs Ritchie died on July 16, 1884, aged 48, three years after her son Walter. She was buried at the Paeroa cemetery by then opened.
The area where the boys were shooting was called 'Te Puke' in newspaper reports, likely meaning the Puke Road area of Paeroa, not Te Puke, Bay of Plenty.
"In 1842 when Joshua Thorp sailed up the Waihou with a view to building the first European house in Ohinemuri he chose the site "Te Puke", a low hill adjacent to the river . . ." [see Ohinemuri Journal 8: Thorp Family - Paeroa's First Settlers )
(Sources Papers Past, Ohinemuri Journal No's 8, and 19 (Ritchie photo), Sir George Grey Auckland Libraries 534-9514)
© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert 2014_______________________________________________________________________