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

The Drowning of Patrick O'Connor

The Drowning of Patrick O'Connor

On Wednesday, 30 November 1892, an inquest was held in the Commercial Hotel into the death of Patrick O'Connor, whose body had been found in the Otakeho River the previous day. Charles Major JP was the coroner, there was a jury of six, and four settlers gave evidence. Patrick O'Connor had been one of the newcomers toiling on the settlement frontier, in his case on two sections at Makaka. William Slattery testified that he had had a bushfelling contract with O'Connor and was living with him in his whare. At about 2pm on Sunday, 27 November, O'Connor had left the whare to go and look at some fires. He was expecting to return by nightfall, but did not.

O'Connor had, in fact, made his way eastwards along Opunake Road, to its junction with Mangawhero Road. Here Daniel Hughes had a section and O'Connor found him at home in his whare. Robert Dawbin was also visiting Hughes and testified that he last saw O'Connor alive there at 6pm on Sunday. Daniel Hughes said he had pressed O'Connor to stay the night, apparently because it was raining and the rivers were rising, but O'Connor was in a hurry to get home. So Hughes lent him an oilskin and he left about 7pm. Hughes believed O'Connor would have reached the Otakeho River about dark. Slattery told of going to look for O'Connor the next morning but failing to find him. On Tuesday a search party, which included Hughes, Dawbin and Constable Henry Salmon, found the body in the stream, the coat entangled in the roots of logs. They concluded that in crossing the flooded river in the failing light O'Connor had slipped, and probably been stunned, otherwise he should have been able to get out of the water. Constable Salmon said that O'Connor's watch had stopped at 7.50pm. The jury's verdict was ‘accidentally drowned’.

This straightforward little tragedy gives some glimpses into frontier settler life. The Sunday day of rest has allowed O'Connor to enjoy some casual social life. Having gone out to look at fires he takes the opportunity to fraternise with these two neighbours. Meanwhile, however, the weather has been changing. There is some poignancy in the way friendliness contributes to the tragedy. His enjoyment of Hughes's company leads O'Connor to stay late, while his concern for Slattery, who was expecting page 183 him back, accounts for his turning down of Hughes's neighbourly offer of a bed for the night. Hughes's generosity extends to his loan of the oilskin. O'Connor may have lacked experience of the rapid rise of freshes as rain breaks over Egmont, and the early fading of the light with the rainclouds may have been the final element leading to disaster.