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Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World

A Mail Coach Disaster

A Mail Coach Disaster

Around 6am on Friday, 14 August 1903, 30-year-old Thomas Kidd drove his four-horse mail coach out of Opunake on his four-hour daily run to Eltham to connect with the morning train to Hawera. Kidd, who had grown up on his Edinburgh-born father's ‘Willowbank’ farm at Hope, Nelson, had come north a year or two earlier and bought out this run, established in May 1899 when a government vote for the bridging of the dangerous Punehu River had made such a service feasible. There were still plenty of potentially dangerous fords over lesser streams, especially on the western end of the route, but ‘progress’ called for a certain amount of risk-taking. Kidd quickly became a popular local identity with a reputation as a first-class hand with horses. The little business must have been doing reasonably well as he was about to be married
Tom Kidd's Eltham—Opunake Coach

Tom Kidd's Eltham—Opunake Coach

page 317

Heavy, warm rain had been falling during the night, and streams were running high, perhaps with snow water adding to the rainfall. Mailbags multiplied as Kidd called at each settlement, but he left Riverlea for Kaponga with only one passenger, Charles Hansen, who had joined at Te Kiri. Hansen had considerable experience with teams on this stretch of road, but with heavy rain still falling chose to stay inside with his luggage rather than join Kidd on the box. Running late (it was due in Kaponga by 8.40am), the coach reached the west bank of the Mangawhero Stream about 9am. The stream was bank high. On the opposite side were two settlers, Thomas Davidson and Michael Lawson, on their way to the factory with their milk. Finding the Mangawhero unfordable, they were about to unload their cans of milk and carry them across the suspension footbridge. Seeing the coach they crossed to the other side and joined passenger Hansen in trying to dissuade Kidd from attempting the ford. ‘Our Own’ later interviewed them.

The passenger and Messrs Lawson and Davidson … tried hard to persuade Tom ‘not to tackle her as she was running too high.’…. But it was no use, Tom remarking, ‘he was bound to get over somehow.’ On forcing his horses into the stream, it was noticed by Messrs Lawson and Davidson that the leaders swerved off and down stream, anxious to turn round apparently and get out. But by splendid ribbon work, and free use of the whip Tom got his leaders into place again, but the two polers, following their leaders, had also swerved off the track a bit, dragging either one or both off wheels over some rough big boulders that lined the narrow roadway through the creek bed and here for a few brief seconds Messrs Davidson and Lawson say it was splendid to see how the gallant horses hung to their traces, although little beyond their heads could be seen above water, and had the wheels not been jammed as they were, all would have gone well enough, and the coach got over safely.

What happened next can be pieced together from these men's more considered account at the inquest and a Star interview with experienced teamster Hansen, in Eltham. Seeing that the horses were in trouble, Hansen shouted to Kidd from the footbridge to turn back and he would run around and try to catch the horses' heads. But it was too late for this. The upstream poler was washed off his feet and, coming against the other poler, knocked it down. The lead horses responded by heading downstream. Michael Lawson told the inquest what happened next:

The coach seemed to rise slowly out of the water on one side. I knew it was going to capsize, and I sang out to the deceased, ‘Tom, jump for your life.’ The deceased then put the whip and the reins out of his hand, and his foot on the side of the coach as it rose up, and jumped into the river up stream, and well away from the coach. But he was immediately washed down again, amongst the wheels of the coach and the horses, and disappeared from sight, and the coach then capsized. I at once crossed the foot bridge and jumped off it, and ran to the west bank of the stream…. Deccased then came up, and page 318 went down stream hanging on to the front of the coach… Then something seemed to hold the coach for a moment or two, and then it went to pieces. Deceased disappeared again for a few feet, and when he appeared this time he was holding on to the tail of one of the horses … He then came to the first bend of the river, the current is very rapid here and the coach and horses, with the deceased, all seemed to jumble up, and deceased disappeared again. I never saw him afterwards.

As the river almost doubled back on itself here, Lawson and Davidson, now joined by others, rushed across the narrow neck of land, confidently expecting to be able to haul Kidd out as he was carried past them. But they got no sight of him.

Michael Lawson seems to have taken charge of the emergency, sending a somewhat dazed Hansen off post haste to Kaponga to raise the alarm, wire the police, and get people to watch the Mangawhero and the Kaupokonui, which it joined about seven miles further downstream. A small group of Kaponga townsfolk, headed by Charles Betts and William Mellow, set off on horses and bicycles and joined the immediate search of a mile or two of both banks of the stream. They recovered two of the horses, the top carriage of the coach and seven of the mailbags, but found no sign of Kidd. The police constables from Opunake, Manaia and Eltham hurried to the scene to organise a more thorough and extensive search. The directing of the continuing search next day devolved on the Opunake constable, Thomas Hickman. Hickman's long service in the district had included the successful implementation of John Ballance's ‘one policeman policy’ at Parihaka and the building of strong bonds with the settlers along Eltham Road as he moved among them on census, factory legislation, and other business. The searchers eventually found and recovered the body about three miles below the ford.

The body was taken to Kaponga's Commercial Hotel, and the aftermath of the tragedy included the inquest held there the next day, a large funeral in Eltham, and a vigorous continuation of the ongoing campaign for the bridging of the Mangawhero. F.W. Wilkie, the acting coroner, had smartly fired off a telegram to the Minister for Public Works and at the inquest he read out the reply, expressing sympathy and giving assurance of prompt arrangements to remove the danger of the Mangawhero crossing. The jury brought in the obvious verdict, with a rider drawing attention to the ‘absolute necessity of a bridge’. The funeral drew folk from all over Taranaki to join Kidd's three brothers, who had travelled up from the south, and the cortège of about 50 vehicles was reported to be ‘one of the largest ever seen in Eltham’.

This accident had a deep and immediate impact on the district. A drinking fountain in Kidd's memory was erected in Eltham's Taumata Park and local histories record the tragedy. Both the event and the public reaction to it are worth probing for the light they throw on the mind of the time. page 319 Why was Tom so determined, despite the dissuasions of the onlookers, that ‘he was bound to get over somehow’? When the Mangawhero crossing was examined after the flood a big scour hole and a large boulder that had been brought down by the fresh were found, though neither was in a position to have caused the accident. But these were likely dangers that Kidd must have expected as he decided to go ahead. Lawson reported having seen him cross once before with the stream quite as high. Probably pride in his reputation for horsemanship and in maintaining his schedule under difficulties were elements in his decision. But there may also have been an element not so evident to our modern minds—the mystique of the faithful servant of the Royal Mail. This has perhaps never been better expressed than in Rudyard Kipling's The Overland Mail’:

Is the torrent in spate? He must ford it or swim.
Has the rain wrecked the road? He must climb by the cliff.
Does the tempest cry ‘halt’? What are tempests to him?
The service admits not a ‘but’ or an ‘if’.
While the breath's in his mouth, he must bear without fail,
In the Name of the Empress, the Overland Mail.

The wide contemporary vogue of Kipling's verse among the common people shows that he was striking deep chords of current popular thought and feeling. This honouring of the faithful mail carrier had several strands— the thankfulness of exiles and immigrants for the link with ‘Home’, pride in the far-flung imperial endeavour of which the postal service was a close-to-home example, and awareness that the success of it all depended on the costly, often dangerous, toil of a multitude of dedicated workers. Kidd's decision to drive into the dangerous stream belongs to a time before the Great War had dampened the commitment to Empire, raising doubts about the competence of its leaders and the wisdom of unquestioning self-sacrifice at their bidding.

The attendance at the funeral was remarkable for a young man and a recent arrival in the district. But a coachman was a public figure, the Eltham Road route would have made him widely known, and he had met his tragic death ‘on public service’. The district would also have been reinforcing the point that the Mangawhero must be bridged. There may have been a little guilt among the mourners, for the government had for a year or two been prepared to find half the cost, provided the local bodies found the other half. The matter had been on the agenda of the latest meeting of the Waimatc Road Board, put there by stirring by the Riverlea branch of the Farmers' Union. The holdup was in deciding the contributions of the various affected local bodies. The tragedy broke the impasse. The Kaponga firm of Robertson and Cave had begun work on the bridge by March 1904 and it was opened by a Minister of the Crown on 8 August 1904, with copious speeches and a banquet.