Sunday, August 29, 2010

Our lethal rivers and seas

I'm sure there were more drownings in New Zealand than any other type of accidental death in our history. Reports of them proliferate. It seems that few knew how to swim, then there the clothes they wore, more of them and a heavier type.

I've got so used to reading about them that it's become a sort of background noise and I'm surprised when I read that people did survive a shipwreck. We didn't hear about the river crossings they survived. It must have been harrowing.

Then there were the wells and mining shafts children drowned in. Anyone who has children will realise the fascination water has for them.  Mothers in those days were fully occupied eighteen hours a day just to provide the basics and didn't have the time to supervise them like we do today.

In my own family history research, being drunk was how two McAllister brothers drowned in the Piako river. They were sailing home from Kopu after being at the pub in 1909. They didn't have drunk in charge of a boat laws in those days.

Another drowning was that of Michael Costello who then had the unfortunate fame of being the subject of the first coroners report in Coromandel.  He was playing in a water hole with some friends.

I have others like a three year old who drowned in a tank of sheep dip and another drunken relative who fell out of a boat. His companions also drunk, couldn't pull him in.  And this chap who married a relative, survived WW1 as a sergeant in the tunnelling division and drowned while crossing a river on a horse.

So you too will probably have these full stops in your family tree. One of the most important tasks as a parent in New Zealand is to have our children taught to swim.


  1. Lady Barker in “Station Life in New Zealand” said (Letter XIII):
    “The common saying in New Zealand is, that people only die from drowning and drunkenness. I am afraid that the former is generally the result of the latter”
    A new light on Drowning, the New Zealand Death.
    In the 19th century, drunk in charge of a horse, not a car!
    (page 83 of 1984 Virago reprint of 1883 Macmillan edition)

    T. W. Downes in “Old Whanganui” page 202 mentions three instances of drowning while intoxicated in 1843-44, as examples of the Wanganui debauchery raised by Mr King in a Wellington paper, and replied to, also anonymously, by E. J. Wakefield.

  2. Ah, Lady Barker, right on the button again. She was neat wasn't she.
    Thanks for your comment John, I think drinking is still the number one past time in this section of the world, but at least we now have bridges.