Volume 3

Stories of Thames

Meghan Hawkes

We are going to go back in time to Thames in 1888 when life wasn’t really all seaside carriage rides and sing songs round the fire.

First of all there was mad Mary Davies who took to her husband with a tomahawk. William Davies had walked in the house with a knife which he’d taken from the cowshed. He said it was to cut a piece of ham as the children had blunted the house knives he had to use this one. In the house were his wife, their three children and three servants.

Thames Star 24 September 1888

After having some words with his wife, he ended up going to bed with no supper. Even though it was a house with three servants it must have been quite cramped as his wife slept on a bedstead with the children and William slept by himself next to them on a mattress on the floor. The next thing William remembered was receiving a blow on the head and then finding himself in hospital.

The story of what really happened was quite different. William had been to four hotels during the afternoon and at one of them he had been heard to say he was going home to make it hot for his wife – which probably didn’t mean quite what it does today.

Once he got home and found the knife he accused Mary of being downtown with her fancy man. The servants, who were petrified of this man, all ran off to the cowshed. William eventually taunted Mary so much she struck him across the head with the tomahawk.

When the case went to court the good ladies and gentlemen of Thames were so anxious to get a look at Mary they were standing up on all manner of things. Mary, who said her life was not worth living with that man, was sentenced to three months in prison which took into account the provocation she received. William died the next year – he was 59, 19 years older than Mary. There was no death notice – no mention of him at all. Mary died ten years later at the age of 40. It was known as the Mt Pleasant case as that’s where they lived – but there was nothing pleasant about it.

Parawai was a particularly unpleasant place as well – it had a boiling-down works which absolutely stank.

Thames Star 21 March 1898

Big piles of animal matter were heaped up and crawling with millions of maggots which were boiled down with the animal matter as well. This putrid muck lay around waiting to be ploughed into paddocks and the sickening stench was even blamed for killing someone. The boiling down works was right next to Parawai School where there was also a slaughterhouse.

The slaughterhouse used to sweep large quantities of animal muck into the creek. This would be carried up and down by the tide and get stuck in the banks of people’s gardens. The slaughterhouse cattle were regarded as dangerous to human life causing children and ladies lifting their skirts to run away screaming in all directions.

And in Thames itself, it wasn’t much different. The Fever Hospital’s drains ran into the Karaka Creek where they deposited something called 'organic matter' onto the beach where it lay about fermenting in the sun.

Most of the town was half dead from the stink coming from the open drains and whenever there was heavy rain and a high tide at the same time the streets and buildings flooded leaving the place covered with mud and slime.

The street lighting was just as awful. It was all gas which gave off a creepy bad light. The council had looked at introducing electricity but apparently Thames had undergone a change for the worse and electricity was put on the backburner. How it could have got any worse is anybody’s guess. In this wooden town fire was a huge threat. Brown Street went up in flames - three shops were demolished before the brigade even got there. The stamper batteries had to be stopped before the water pressure could be reached and then the hose burst. The public were outraged and called it a miserable attempt at fire fighting.

If you were a child in this town it wasn’t much better. Five children had been left alone in a house on a Saturday night and the oldest boy was in charge. He left a candle on a pillow while trying to get the baby to sleep. All the children were on the same bed and the elder boy fell asleep only to wake up when he felt his hand burning. The bed was on fire and fortunately some passersby got the children out. There was no investigation into the circumstances or the parents unlike today.

Thames Star 25 January 1888

Children were regularly brought up before the Police Court and given quite harsh sentences but two little girls aged 9 and 7 were lucky this year. They had been caught stealing bits of an iron truck wheel from a mine and breaking it up and selling it. Sergeant Murphy was mortified when he realised how young they were and the charges were withdrawn but one wonder’s at the cunning or maybe the desperation of these children.

A desperate family was the destitute family of a mother and nine children who washed up in Auckland from Thames in a starving condition. One child was admitted to hospital with scarlet fever. The Auckland Charitable Aid Board looked to the Thames Charitable Aid Board for reimbursement but the question of whether or not it would be cheaper to keep the family in Thames or in Auckland- which makes them sound like unwanted animals - was casually left till the next meeting.

Men’s work was usually lethal – particularly in the mines. Mr Syms worked in a Waihi mine but had had to leave his wife and family of six or seven children behind in Thames. He was in the engine house screwing up some bolts when the spanner slipped and he fell about 12 feet, the fall leaving him paralysed. He was brought to Thames by steamer which left at 10.30 in the morning and didn’t arrive until well after 4.30 in the afternoon. The accident had happened at 2 the day before and it defies belief the hours and hour’s people had to travel for medical care in agony. You have to wonder how many injuries were actually made worse. And you wonder what happened to his wife with those six or seven children to feed.

Maybe she was like Mrs O’Toole who tried to get two of her children admitted to the Thames orphanage even though they weren’t orphans. All she got was some sympathy because her husband had deserted her.

Then there were the infelicities which was another word for misfortune. The Adamson’s suffered conjugal infelicity which came to a head when Mr Adamson went to take some rugs off the bed and Mrs Adamson pushed him over. Of course there was more to it than that - according to her since he had come home from the bush last January he had been acting very strangely.

His story was that she abused him from morning to night and nothing he did seemed to please her. The bench said the husband should curb his temper, not threaten his wife or use filthy language. The wife was told to be more patient and the case was dismissed. The husband then asked if he could be granted a separation order as he could not live with her – but the Bench indifferently replied the matter would have to be settled later. It was a time of like it or lump it and being stuck in ghastly marriages.

Thames Star 25 January 1888

A case of Domestic infelicity was heard literally over split milk. In this dysfunctional family everyone was arguing over milk when the husband threw the milk jug down, rushed at his wife and started punching and kicking her. A daughter yelled out at him not to hit her on the face where it would be seen and then the other daughter threw pepper into her mother’s eyes.

In court the evidence found that the wife and husband hated each other terribly, they had all taken sides and it was quite clear none of them should be living together. God only knows what happened to them. There was no marriage guidance, no counselling, and no victim support.

Infelicities were not above the clergy either - a Mr and Mrs Gallagher were visiting with Father Cassidy, Father Costello and Father O’Donnell. Against her husband’s wishes Mrs Gallagher went for a drive with Father O’Donnell. When they came back Gallagher wanted his wife to pack up and clear out but she refused so he threatened to hit her. A brawl broke out between Father O’Donnell and Mr Gallagher. Father Costello was standing on the sidelines telling Father O’Donnell to give Gallagher a good hammering. Which he did – Gallagher was dreadfully beaten by the punch happy priest.

Drink was an absolute curse in some people’s lives and was probably the only way to cope although there was one Thames man who returned home drunk, went to bed and suddenly woke up shouting 'Sally do go and get us a cup of tea.

Sally said 'No get it yourself.' After a puzzling amount of time Sally went looking for her husband and found him sitting on the hearth with a pair of bellows blowing away at what he thought was the fire in the grate but which turned out to be the light of the moon shining through the keyhole.

If you did survive living in Thames chances are you would die there too and you would be attended by William Twentyman, undertaker. Except this year William was attacked with acute stomach pains while lowering a coffin into the grave. Over the next few agonising days, he was looked after by two doctors and on the fifth day, in desperation, a hot bath was ordered. But a few minutes after getting out of it – William died. He had a strangulated hernia - a victim of the medical ignorance and desperate measures common at the time.

Near the end of that year news started filtering through from Whitechapel London about Jack the Ripper. The newspapers had a field day and the Thames Evening Star graphically reported the horrible murders of moneyless women of the lowest class.

They called him Leather Apron at first and he was described as short, stunted and thickset. He had small wicked black eyes and he was half crazy. He hung about in deep shadows and he did not walk but moved queerly and never made any noise with his feet. And as well as those he had murdered - he had scared nearly a hundred more of them to death!

Every time you opened the newspaper there it was – 'Another Whitechapel murder' – 'Intense excitement' – 'Bloodhounds on the tracks' - 'THE FIEND STILL AT LARGE' – 'The sensation of the hour' - 'The White Chapel horror' – even – 'The last victim is still alive!' which she wasn’t. In the end it got a bit close to home when a Sydney sailor was arrested on suspicion of being the Ripper.

Thames Star 22 November 1888

Thames Star 23 November 1888

Thames Star 3 December 1892

The crimes were said to be committed swiftly and noiselessly with a scientific skill. Imagine reading that and having to walk Thames’s dark streets with their creepy gaslights and stagger round your house with flickering candles with the putrid smell wafting over the place from Parawai, mad Mary Davies up at Mt Pleasant with her tomahawk and priests brawling all over the place and drunk men trying to light fires with a piece of moonlight.

So much for old Thames.

Taken from a speech presented by Meghan Hawkes at the meeting of the Thames Branch of the NZ Society of Genealogists held at The Treasury on 21st March 2012.

Reference: PapersPast


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