Former serviceman’s fatal dash was driven by heartbreak

20 Jul 2021

Meghan Hawkes uncovers another unique story about the characters who now rest in the Mercury Bay Cemetery and our other local graveyards.

William Wilson was penniless, with scarcely a shoe on his feet. The 56-year-old Scotsman had been employed at the Whangapoua mill of C A Harris and son but the work was finished and William, along with several others, had headed to Mercury Bay. 

William was owed a considerable amount in wages from the mill and frequently declared that he would kill his former employer for cheating him and then jump into the river. His mates did not take much notice of his threats which continued as they all sat on the verandah of the Mercury Bay Hotel on a Saturday in February 1878. Around 4:00pm, William suddenly got up, ran down the wharf and jumped into the river. Horrified, Mr McMahon, landlord of the hotel, sent his servant girl to fetch the police. He then attempted to follow William in his boat, but it had no rowlocks.

Constable O’Reilly and Donald McPherson, local butcher, arrived in a boat and picked William up about 400 yards above the wharf. The tide was flowing strongly as they hauled William into the boat. They tried to revive him without success. William was taken back to the Mercury Bay Hotel where an inquest found that he had drowned himself due to temporary insanity brought on by loss of money and too much drink.

William’s last days had been melancholy and strange. He came and went from McMahon’s Mercury Bay Hotel, staying a night here and there, sometimes having dinner, drinking, but quite rational. He was also seen lying drunk on a bench in the bar room of Carina’s Whitianga Hotel. Robert Harkins and Henry Harris, bushmen, noticed that William seemed broken-hearted about losing his money. 

It transpired that the last man to speak to William was C A Harris who had come over from Whangapoua with the men. This was likely the son, the senior C A Harris being the one who owed the wages and the target of William’s threats. C A Harris told William that the contractor he worked for was in debt, so would pay him nothing. William then made his fatal dash down the wharf. 

William’s unpaid wages were about £25, the loss of which triggered the sad end of a once proud and strong man. William had been in New Zealand for more than 20 years. He had formerly served in the 58th (Rutlandshire) Regiment of Foot, also known as the Steel Backs because of their lack of concern about floggings. The regiment had been deployed to New Zealand in March 1845 to serve during the Flagstaff Wars in and around the Bay of Islands. The regiment was also active in fighting a fire that broke out in Auckland. When the 58th left New Zealand in November 1858, some of the men elected to settle permanently in New Zealand, William being one of them.

William is buried at Mercury Bay cemetery in a grave now unmarked.

Pictured: The Whangapoua Timber Mill. Photo courtesy of the Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.