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Letters from New Zealand 1857-1911



A great disaster has occurred. Vessels from England lie off Timaru in a safe anchorage, landing their cargo in surf boats; the breakwater which I mentioned is begun, but is not sufficiently advanced to form a harbour, but, as a rule, there is little risk here, as the Timaru bay is not a lee shore, and the surf is not heavy.

It was a calm Sunday morning in May; four ships were in the roadstead at anchor, and as I returned from an Early Service in the Gaol, I noticed the beauty of the sea, which lay like a silver shield sparkling in the sunshine. Within in a few hours there was page 200a marvellous change. Our Morning Service at St. Mary's was nearly over, when we were startled by signal guns of distress, and an ominous gathering roar of surf. Everyone made for the beach, where a furious sea was running, with immense waves, probably the result of a tidal wave caused by some submarine explosion in the Pacific, for there was not a breath of wind. Presently, three of the vessels broke away from their anchors, drifting towards the rocks which form a headland to the north. Their crews took to the boats, with little chance of making the shore in such a sea. Then came a call for volunteers to man the harbour lifeboat, and other whaleboats; there was no lack of response; five boats went to the rescue, for it was seen that two of the ship's boats had capsized. As the last boat was leaving the wharf, a man I knew well came running down and, noticing a friend who had taken his seat at the bow oar, sung out, "Come out of that, Jack, you're a married man, I'm not," and he took his place; a steady, hard-working fellow, a Swede, a fine specimen of manhood, seldom absent from St. Mary's evening service. The boats met a terrible experience; for three hours they battled with the sea, which still increased; swamped, righting again, picking up drowning men, until at last they reached the shelter of the breakwater, but with the loss of twelve lives, the Harbour Master, Captain Mills, so exhausted, that he died soon after he was lifted out of his boat, and amongst the missing was the gallant fellow who had given his life for his friend. It was a strangely tragic afternoon; brilliant sunshine over all that surging waste of waters; on land the calm peace of an Autumn day; nearly the whole population of the town on the beach, watching the page 201struggle with death, unable to help; and at last the return of the rescuers, battered, bruised, and spent, with the men they had saved. Then, as if to remind us that "the waves of the sea are mighty and rage horribly; but yet the Lord Who dwelleth on high is mightier," by the time of Evening Service there was a great calm, and under the clear moonlight "the gentleness of Heaven" was over all. You may imagine the congregation, and the solemnity of our Service that night.

A few days later, the bodies having been recovered, amid a vast concourse which well nigh filled the cemetery, I committed them to their last earthly home. A committee has been formed to collect funds for the relatives of those who were lost, where needed, and for the erection of a Memorial granite obelisk, to be placed near St. Mary's Church, where several streets meet. There is no lack of liberal and ready benevolence in such a community as this for such a purpose.

I am gradually getting the Sunday School into shape; this has taken time, as I found merely a handful of children, with a few teachers, and a state of indiscipline that needed strong measures. There is no chance of a Church Day School here; the secular state system holds the ground, with an excellent building, a good staff of teachers, in every way an admirable school save for the great defect of complete absence of Biblical or religious teaching. So we must make much of Sunday School work, supplemented by week-day classes. This, I hope to make a success, as I find many who are anxious to aid in Church work, There is a well-managed Hospital here, in which Sunday Services are held by Mr. Turnbull, one of the pioneers of the place. Actual poverty hardly exists, page 202but in order to meet cases of illness and misfortune, with the aid of several, including an old friend of mine in Hokitika, William Evans, who is engaged in the flour milling trade of the place, we have instituted a Benevolent Society, to which the public generally subscribe, and on its committee there are representatives of all religious denominations.

Visiting here is different work to that in Westland, open country, scattered population, but excellent roads, which would do credit to a much older place, the result of a system by which the Board of Works receives a proportion of all money acquired by Government by sale of Crown lands. The Board's affairs have been well cared for by its chairman, Philip Luxmoore, whom you may recollect at Eton, nephew of Dr. Pusey. I do a great deal of walking, with some riding and driving; there is no river trouble to be faced, and the difference between the rainfall here and Westland is immense. There, an average of over a hundred inches, here, a mere twenty-eight, per annum.

Talking of holidays, my idea is this: to stick to work here for some years, and, when the opportunity comes, if possible, to have a year or so in the old world again. I have a great longing to see something of the Continent, and especially of Italy. I have no lack of books, the mails are faster than some years ago, but one feels the want of that quickening of intellectual life which you enjoy in constant contact with cultured minds. After nine years of daily talk of gold and wash-dirt, this pastoral land, where Wool is king, is apt—to quote George Herbert—"to transfuse a sheepishness into my story," and one runs the risk of "being in the pasture lost." So I keep at my habit of study, reading every morning as far as pos-page 203sible, to say nothing of Home papers and magazines, and always find some kindred spirits ready to discuss them.

I am,
Yours ever,

H. W. H.