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

The Piteous Death of a Servant Girl

The Piteous Death of a Servant Girl

We move next to a well-developed home and farm on the fringe of Kaponga township for the sad story of a servant girl's suicide by poisoning. This episode complements the previous two by taking us inside a more well-to-do settler home. It also gives us glimpses of the more intimate side of life as a rather socially isolated young woman wrestles with the dilemma of an unwanted pregnancy in the context of the taboos of the time. The story in brief outline is as follows.1

In late November 1896 22-year-old Essie Mason took employment as a housemaid with Emma and John Melville,* who farmed just west of Kaponga, on the north-west corner of the junction of the Eltham and Melville roads. The household also included a boy milker, William Robertson, son of an Inglewood labourer. The Melvilles' 25-year-old bachelor son Bert had left the district for Auckland, seemingly some time after Essie joined the household. Essie Mason had a brother, William Mason, a settler living at Opunake. The only other of her relatives mentioned was her father, on the West Australian gold fields. Around the time she came to page 187 the Melvilles' Essie became pregnant, by whom was not established. There was a rumour, strongly denied by the Melvilles, that their son Bert had been ‘keeping company’ with Essie. On the morning of Thursday, 22 April 1897, some five months after joining the household, Essie became suddenly ill and she died in agony about five hours later. The inquest jury reached the conclusion that she died of self-administered poison. We will rearrange the evidence so as to unfold the story in chronological order.

In late January Essie borrowed a horse from the Melvilles and was away about seven hours. She did not say where she had been. Was she following up the other party to the pregnancy? Her brother William mentioned seeing her about early March, but had not seen her again until the evening before her death. On 6 April Paul Peacock, manager of the Kaponga branch of the chemist's business of R.W. Hornby of Manaia, sold Essie some ‘Death to Rats' poison. He probably thought she was purchasing on her employers' behalf but they denied all knowledge of the transaction. This matter did not come to light at the initial meeting of the inquest. Peacock testified that when she made the purchase Essie ‘appeared in best state of mind, jolly and free’.

The picture one builds up of Essie from the inquest evidence is that she was ‘a very strong healthy girl’ of ‘a determined disposition’. John Melville commented that ‘she was very reserved’, but also that ‘she was always jolly’ and two other witnesses commented that she was ‘in her usual spirits’ the evening before her death. She was literate as she maintained a correspondence with her father. She seems to have been given a fairly free hand in her work in the Melville household and her employers did not impose, nor did she adopt, a servile attitude. Emma Melville became suspicious that Essie was pregnant and asked her several times if this was so, but ‘she was silent on the matter, and would not own to or deny it’.

We move now to the week of the tragedy. On the Tuesday evening William Robertson, the young milker, was in the township and at the post office was given two letters with ‘some swans on the stamps’ for Essie. He gave them to Emma Melville, who passed them on to Essie. At the inquest John Melville qualified his description of Essie as ‘always jolly’ by saying that after she received these letters she ‘seemed quite changed’. Western Australia had swans on its stamps and there is a little mystery about these letters. Robertson said he got the letters at Mr Harwood's, and storekeeper Harwood was postmaster for some three years from February 1896. But rival storekeeper George Tindle gave evidence that

… I do not remember any letters coming for the girl except those from Coolgardie. Letters from Coolgardie usually come through my store. I think there was one letter from Coolgardie came through me for deceased on Tuesday. She was in my store on Tuesday night.

It seems that Essie received three letters from Western Australia that day. The investigating constable produced a bundle of letters from Essie's page 188 room at the inquest, but commented that ‘they contain nothing of importance’, so the ones she received that Tuesday cannot have been among them.

The following evening (Wednesday) Essie received a visit from her brother. Both the brother and John Melville gave evidence on this. Melville said:

The last time I saw the girl was on Wednesday night, when her brother [William Mason] came to see her. She said, oh! is it you? When I went inside the brother was inside on the sofa. I asked him to have something to eat or drink. He said no; he wanted to see someone working at the crusher. Her brother went outside, and [Essie] followed him out. She came in and asked me for the loan of a pound for her brother. I gave it to her, and she went out again. She was gone a couple of hours. When she came in I saw there was a big change in her. I said, have you been having a good gossip. She said she had been talking to her brother, and said no more.

William Mason gave this account:

Saw her last alive on Wednesday night last. Saw no difference in her appearance. She said she had a letter from her father from Coolgardie. I knew nothing about her condition. I was talking to her for about three-quarters of an hour. I left her at the gate. Did not tell me she was in trouble, but appeared in her usual spirits. Left her at the gate. Noticed a far away look about her eyes. I asked her if there was anything the matter. She did not answer me.

On the Thursday morning, according to Emma Melville, Essie was up early as usual, called the milk boy, and lit the fire for breakfast. ‘From my bedroom,’ Emma reported:

I heard her in the scullery making a noise, as if stirring something in a cup. I then got up and went into the kitchen. She poured out my cup of tea. She sat at the end of the table, and remarked she felt sick. I said, what made you sick, [Essie]? She got up and went into the garden. About a quarter of an hour after I heard her retching, and I went to her bedroom and found her on the floor, retching into a chamber. This was a little after 7 a.m.

As the retching continued Emma became increasingly suspicious that Essie had taken poison, but could get no answer from her. Meanwhile John Melville and the boy were busy with the milking and knew nothing of the unfolding tragedy. Fortuitously Emma's 15-year-old grand-daughter, Charlotte White, arrived on an errand. Emma left Essie with Charlotte and went for help. It was not to her husband that she turned, but to storekeeper George Tindle. Tindle reported that Emma called about 10.30am ‘in a very nervous state’, asking advice about sending to Manaia for Dr Pairman. Tindle asked if he could see the girl before doing so. When he saw Essie in bed he detected a peculiar smell in the room. He pressed her about taking page 189 poison but she denied it. He went off to wire for Dr Pairman. Emma described how Essie's ordeal ended:

She then knocked and asked me for some more water, and I gave it to her. She drank it. She threw her arms up and screamed, ‘[Mrs Melville], I'm dying, I'm dying.’ I ran out and screamed for someone to come, but no one came and I went back and held her until she died. She died some two or three minutes after she threw her arms over her head.

Tindle handed the telegram to the postmaster at about 10.55am. He also called at the chemist's but found that he was away in Manaia. Neither Tindle nor Emma thought of giving Essie an emetic.

John Melville told of knowing nothing of the crisis until after Essie's death. After milking he went to the factory between 8 and 9am. When he got back he found the boy at the gate ‘going for a message’. He made the boy help him with the cans. At some stage the boy had had breakfast without seeing Essie. John Melville must also have snatched a breakfast, though this was not mentioned in the evidence. According to Tindle, after unloading the cans Melville went off to get timber from the mill. The boy left on his delayed errand, which apparently was a request from Emma for Tindle to come, as the girl seemed to be dying. Tindle and John Melville arrived back at the house at about the same time, to find that Essie was dead.

Dr Pairman did not get the telegram till 1pm. He set out for Kaponga but on the journey was informed that the girl was dead and went back. When the Manaia constable, Henry Salmon, got home that evening he found a message about the death. Accompanied by William Mason he went to inspect the body and the scene that night and concluded that the girl had died in great agony. He returned next morning with Dr Pairman, who conducted a post mortem, on which he gave evidence at the inquest

… I found all the organs of the body healthy, but the stomach was very much inflamed as if there had been an irritant poison there. The inside of the stomach was empty with the exception of a substance about the size of a pigeon's egg resembling putty … The stomach looked like one would expect to find after a dose of arsenic. All the other organs except the stomach, were quite healthy. I examined the womb; there was no sign of any illegal operation. There was a child there a little over five months old. I cannot say what was the cause of death until the stomach is analysed.

The body was also examined by Dr Harrison of Eltham, who concurred with Dr Pairman's evidence.

The inquest, with C.E. Major as coroner and a jury of six, began at the Commercial Hotel at 3pm on Saturday and at 9pm adjourned until 11 May to allow for the government analyst's report on the stomach contents to be received. On 11 May the inquest received the analyst's report, and also the evidence of chemist's assistant Peacock about the sale of the rat poison. After a long consultation the jury returned the verdict that ‘Essie Mason came to page 190 her death on 22nd April by taking poison known as “Death to Rats”. They added a rider:

The jury are of the opinion Mrs Melville might have administered an emetic or called help earlier; and the jury wished to express their great dissatisfaction with Wm Mason for the manner in which he gave his evidence. The jury wish to refer with pleasure to the manner in which Constable Salmon worked up the case and gave his evidence.

It may be useful first to speculate briefly on some of the enigmas of the evidence. We will then discuss Essie Mason's dilemma in the context of contemporary attitudes in sexual matters and follow this with comments on this mature settler home and its community context in the light of the episode.

The jury's long consultation and the rider to their verdict suggest that they either knew or suspected that the evidence did not contain the whole truth and that they were convinced that William Mason had perjured himself, though they were not prepared to involve themselves in making that charge. They may also have been deliberately protecting George Tindle, who may well have known much more than he told. The suicide seems to have been precipitated by the arrival of the letters from Australia—John Melville certainly thought this was the case. Essie must have had two (or more) correspondents in Western Australia: one was writing to her at the Kaponga post office, another care of Tindle. I can offer only speculation on these letters. From William Mason's evidence one of Essie's correspondents was her father. I presume that one or both of the letters that the boy brought home for her on Tuesday evening were from her father. If both were from him he may have posted one, then received a ‘startling’ letter from her and replied in time to catch the same mail. Having received these letters from her father on ‘Tuesday evening’ Essie knew that a Western Australian mail was in and hurried to Tindle's store on ‘Tuesday night’ when Tindle thought there was a letter from Coolgardie ‘for deceased’. One possibility is that this letter was from Essie's lover, who was also in Western Australia. We may presume that there was no help for Essie's dilemma in any of these letters.

William Mason's visit on Wednesday night may also have arisen from his having heard from Australia by the same mail. From John Melville's evidence it would seem that Essie was not expecting her brother, so she cannot have sent for him. Her talk with him must have merely reinforced the ‘bad news’ her letters had brought. I suggest that George Tindle knew more than he told. If he was distributing letters from Coolgardie through his store this must have been arranged by the senders, so he must have known who they were. He seems to have deliberately ‘generalised’ this matter, and been ‘vague’ in that he only ‘thought’ there was a letter came through him for Essie on the Tuesday. One wonders why he was not interrogated on this matter. His contention that he did not know that Essie was pregnant is not convincing. If, as she reported, Emma Melville thought from her observations that Essie was seven or eight months pregnant, it page 191 must surely have been obvious to Tindle when Essie was in his store on Tuesday evening. A village storekeeper who missed seeing such evidence before his eyes, and utterly failed to pick up the gossip going the rounds, would be a very unusual storekeeper indeed. Emma Melville's turning to Tindle in the crisis of Thursday morning surely had some basis that did not come out at the inquest.

The other main area of speculation concerns the Melvilles' son, 25-year-old Bert. Emma told the jury:

my son Bert had never to my knowledge resided in my house during the time deceased was in my employment. Never saw them go up to town together….There was no truth in the rumour that my son was engaged to be married to deceased. I do not know my son had walked out with deceased.

From John Melville:

My son Bert was never keeping company with deceased. I never saw them together. No one ever told me she was keeping company with my son Bert. He was never at home alone with the girl.

Essie's brother gave evidence that on the Wednesday evening she told him that Bert had gone to Auckland and that the Melvilles hadn't heard from him since. Were the rumours about Bert based merely on propinquity and coincidence in his move to Auckland, or had they firmer grounds?

On the far side of a revolution in attitudes relating to sex it is difficult for us to imagine Essie Mason's dilemma in its context of the contemporary mind. A few quotations on the state of morals from Robert Cecil's Life in Edwardian England (London, 1969) may help to bridge the years.

Fear of the flesh led to swaddling of women in clothes from throat to instep; but natural desire insinuated itself and beneath the dense coverings fashion emphasised the bust and the bustle … Bustles might draw attention to bottoms, but the word must never be spoken. Gwen Raverat records how her sister, on hearing a recitation of Cowper's Epitaph on a Hare, inquired, ‘What's a rump?’ Silence fell on the company, but an aunt afterwards explained, ‘I thought I ought to tell you that the rump is the back part of an animal, but it is a word you must never, never use.’ (pp. 15758)

… as in all ages of chivalry, a man was led to make a firm distinction between ‘a pure woman’, who bore his children, and ‘a light woman’, with whom sex was fun. The distinction resulted in prostitution on a grand scale, (p. 158)

If there was no sex education for the young … there was certainly conditioning of the minds of girls. Unhappy wives often conveyed to their daughters an obscure sense of resignation before Man the Beast and counselled them, when they too became wives, to tolerate his love-making as best they might. (p. 161)

The conspiracy of silence about sex extended to the body and all its page 192 functions. In general girls fared worse than boys. If parents hid the maps and protested that the world was flat, boys who were prepared to defy them could go out and see for themselves. But for girls the unexplored territory was peopled with demons, carefully put there—often with the best intentions—not only by fathers, but by mothers, nurses, governesses and school-mistresses as well. (pp. 16263)

Essie, for reasons unknown, was without the counsel of a mother or other female relative. Apparently she had no close girlfriends of her own age as none was called to give evidence. A reserved girl, she had yet somehow to establish contact with the opposite sex in order to ‘achieve’ marriage, the one obvious way for her to move up from servant status. No doubt ill-prepared for such ventures she had blundered, and found herself disastrously trapped. Her refusal to admit her condition may have been due to fear of losing her position and lack of any strategy for dealing with such an outcome. We may wonder why the Melvilles did not take the opportunity of Essie's brother's visit on the Wednesday evening to bring the issue into the open and have some answer to the problem thrashed out. The evidence they gave leads one to feel that the taboos were so strong that even this married couple avoided talking the matter over together. In their rider criticising Emma Melville's tardiness the jury had nothing to say on the taboos that hampered this distraught woman. The male ‘head’ of this household received no criticism, although his claim that the crisis unfolded under his very nose without his being aware of it is hard to credit.

Essie's brother, of course, received the main condemnation. The jury cannot have believed his contention that he ‘knew nothing about her condition’. He told them he talked to her for about three-quarters of an hour, but John Melville said she was out with him for ‘a couple of hours’. He said he had asked her if she would go over to Australia with him and that she had said she would think about it, but he did not say why they were discussing such a trip. The jury were probably angry with William on two counts. They must have been convinced that his conversation with his sister had in fact been about her ‘condition’. And, from the viewpoint of their male-dominated world, it had been William's responsibility, as the only available male family member, to take charge of the situation and sort it out. It would seem that Essie had taken what would, for the times, have been considered the correct actions. She would know that she had forfeited all claims on ‘respectable’ society. Her only hope lay in family, where authority resided with the males. The hedge of taboos prevented her from discussing her problem elsewhere. Having turned to her father through the post and to her brother when he called, and apparently found neither sympathy nor help, this tragically trapped young woman could see no alternative to the desperate remedy she had been brooding on for weeks.

The unsatisfactory final word on this sad episode was left to a male jury sitting with a male coroner. Of course there was no way in which Kaponga page 193 could, on its own, have begun to develop a new moral conscience and code of behaviour. That Essie should have been trapped into inflicting an agonising rodent's death on herself was an obscenity. But similar obscenities were occurring across the western world, and sensitive minds were beginning to challenge the conventions that gave rise to them. If ‘Gunpowder's’ ballad was inspired by Kipling's Barrack-room Ballads of 1892, Essie's tragedy recalls Tess of the d'Urbervilles of 1893, Thomas Hardy's bold challenge to the sexual mores of his time. In moves such as the Married Women's Property Acts and the extension of the franchise to women the New Zealand community had shown a capacity to move somewhat ahead of the world of its origins. But the mores of a culture are deep-rooted, and at the everyday level of attitudes and actions Kaponga shared a common world with Wessex. This meant that Kaponga could expect to endure similar tragedies, but also to be able to respond to the worldwide challenges that sensitive minds were making to the destructive conventions.

There is a striking contrast between the close working together of ‘Gunpowder's’ frontier family and the separate house and farm programmes of the Melvilles. Probably for most established settlers the daily routine was more like that of the Melvilles than of Jack, Jane and Ben. The work had been divided into a farm routine directed by the husband and a home one directed by the wife, and help had been hired for both. They were aging, and both the division of labour and the buying in of help would have been designed to lighten their load. Reading the everyday patterns that underlay the emerging tragedy one senses an hospitable household where Essie had been made to feel at home. When her brother called she could invite him in, he made himself at home on the sofa, and John Melville asked him to have something to eat or drink. Later when Essie and William were talking out at the gate she felt quite free to drop back into the house and borrow a pound from John Melville to lend to her brother. Earlier she had been lent the use of a horse for the best part of a day. Emma Melville mentioned that if Essie wanted any wine ‘she could help herself’. Everything points to Essie having been a trusted and valued servant in a society where domestic servants had a scarcity value.

The episode throws some light on the wider community, particularly its communication networks. Apart from this incident we could easily have missed the fact that a scatter of Kaponga men had joined the Western Australian gold rush. While in the district these more rootless men will have been serviced mainly by Tindle's store, which specialised in ‘packing and carting to all parts of the district’. On leaving for ‘Coolgardie’ it made sense for them to arrange that their mail go to Tindle rather than stay at the post office. Tindle's carts and packhorses would have been able to deliver it around the district, and he would know where to redirect it if their friends should move either within or from the district. He may also have been looking after other of their affairs. This indeed may be why Emma Melville could twice get him to come the kilometre from his store to her home during page 194 the crisis. But here, as elsewhere, the pace of communication was too slow to avert the tragedy. The telegram to Manaia left too late, although whether Dr Pairman was at home or abroad when it arrived is not clear. Certainly Manaia's Constable Salmon was abroad and news of the tragedy awaited him at his home for half a day.