Shark Week: Wellington 1852

It is a warm summer day and the young city of Wellington is celebrating its anniversary. A military band entertains crowds on the shore as waka and whaleboats compete in races out on the water. After the musical performance finishes a group of soldiers and band members from the 65th Regiment dive into the sea and race each other to the ships in the harbour. Their idyllic afternoon swim is about to take a tragic turn…

This week is Shark Week, well it is for North American audiences who are currently chomping through the popular television event, so to mark the occasion I thought I’d share the largely forgotten story of a tragic shark attack that occurred in 19th century New Zealand.

I work in the television production industry and one of my most recent projects will be premiering in the United States this evening as part of this year’s Shark Week line-up. I’ve been involved in a number of Shark Week shows and they frequently put me in contact with people who dedicate their lives to better understanding these fascinating animals. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with scientists that study them, filmmakers who swim with them and some incredibly brave people who have survived unfortunate encounters with them. You’d think that this might have put me off swimming in the sea but it hasn’t, as I know that attacks on humans are actually exceedingly rare. That and to be honest I never really enjoyed swimming in the first place.

Here in New Zealand we aren’t used to living alongside animals that are capable of killing us; we don’t have wolves, bears, cougars, snakes, crocodiles, lions, tigers or hippos. Our indigenous animals tend to be small, nocturnal and cuddly. We aren’t usually allowed to actually cuddle them but they do look cuddly. Our fauna are feathery, slow, friendly and fluffy – until we get into the ocean. New Zealand’s waters are home to a number of species of sharks that are capable of inflicting life-threatening injuries on humans. Included on this list is the infamous great white shark. I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to come face to face with this incredible apex predator.

Great White Shark circling History Geek © Lemuel Lyes

Great White Shark circling History Geek
© Lemuel Lyes

Fatal shark attacks on humans are uncommon, but they can and do happen. When they do occur the outcome can be tragic and the shock can resonate through whole communities. One such example occurred in Wellington on 22 January 1852.

Nineteen-year-old Johnny Balmer was a member of the 65th Regiment’s band, which had entertained the public earlier in the day. After racing each other to ships in the harbour his companions swam back to shore, but Johnny decided to stay in the water a little longer, about sixty metres from land. A lad in a boat passed close by and called out to see if he needed a ride back to shore but the young musician laughed and replied that he could easily continue swimming for another hour or so, and that he intended to swim back the way he came. Shortly after he uttered those words a shark rushed towards him and the unfortunate soldier shrieked in terror.

The lad in the boat turned and rushed to Johnny’s assistance as the shark bit into his thigh and calf and dragged him underwater. The captain of a nearby ship later estimated that the shark was fifteen feet in length. The water turned crimson red as Johnny struggled in the jaws of the shark. After freeing himself he desperately tried to reach the nearby boat. Incredibly he made it to safety but his injuries were severe and despite the best efforts of his rescuer he bled to death in the matter of minutes.

It was a tragic end to a day of celebration and festivities. The body was brought to shore and the next day an inquest was held at the Thistle Inn. Teeth marks were visible on the kneecap, chunks of the flesh were missing and the wounds were so severe that bone was visible. It was no surprise that the official finding was that “the deceased was killed by the bite of a shark while bathing”. Some nineteenth century accounts of shark attacks seem unreliable but this one was conclusive.

The response to the incident was predictable. Some people set out to hunt the shark with hooks and harpoons. They claimed to come close to catching it but ultimately were unsuccessful. Others blamed the presence of the shark on the arrival of two whaling ships, which were known to throw blubber and offal over the side. This isn’t necessarily entirely far-fetched, as sharks are certainly known to feed on the decomposing remains of whales.

Wellington isn’t known as a particularly dangerous place to swim. It’s better known for its wind than its sharks. The incident in 1852 is thought to be the only fatal shark attack in Wellington’s history. No part of New Zealand’s coastline is immune to the possibility of unfortunate encounters between sharks and swimmers but the odds are extraordinarily slim. There have been less than a dozen recorded fatal shark attacks in New Zealand’s history. You all know the statistic – you are much more likely to be hit by lightning.

If you want to learn more about the history of shark attacks in New Zealand then head on over to this great page at Te Ara. If you are in Wellington then it might be a nice idea to pay your respects at John Balmer’s grave in the Bolton Street cemetery and have a pint in his memory at the Thistle Inn (which was rebuilt after a fire in 1866 but stands on the same spot as the original). You can also read more about the story here or here in the original newspaper report, or check out this fantastic album dedicated to the incident.

© Lemuel Lyes

1914: Fairfield Freezing Works Fancy Dress Ball

One hundred years ago today the Fairfield Freezing Works held a fancy dress ball in the Orange Hall in Ashburton. The men paid three shillings and sixpence each and the women provided the food. They were entertained by the tunes of Terris’s band, local favourites who played everything from waltzes and quadrilles to barn dances. It was an innocent scene and a fairly unremarkable one in a rural New Zealand town, but unknown to those on the dance floor their lives were soon to change forever. Two days earlier, on the other side of the world, an Archduke had been assassinated and the countdown to war had begun.

New Zealand dance cards and ball invitations are one of my much-loved ephemera collections. I started collecting them at stamp fairs and today find them in antique stores, second-hand bookshops and on Internet auction sites. What interests me is the story hiding behind each one.

30 June 1914 Fairfield Freezing Works Dance Card Lemuel Lyes Collection

30 June 1914 Fairfield Freezing Works Dance Card
Lemuel Lyes Collection

Dance cards will often have the details of the dance on the front, and in the centre will have a list of the dances to be held that evening with a space next to each where an attendee would write the names of suitors. There would often be a small pencil attached to the card by string – although the pencils are usually missing from surviving examples.  Presumably long since pinched for use on shopping lists.

Inside of dance card Lemuel Lyes Collection

Inside of dance card
Lemuel Lyes Collection

I have to confess that cards like this one make me a little bit sad. It is common to find cards that haven’t been filled at all, and one can presume that the invitee was too busy to attend or that the card was a spare that was leftover. However, this example has just one dance filled in – resembling what I presume a dance card would look like if yours truly ever ventured to such social occasions.

The Fairfield Freezing works opened in March 1899 and was an important addition to the local industry in Ashburton, a small town on the Canterbury plains. As a child I lived not too far north from there and I remember the shingle back roads and hot dry summers fondly. Like many rural settlements in New Zealand, Ashburton continues to support the local farmers and agricultural industry – fulfilling the same role that it did a century ago. There may be more tractors than horses now but this is still a land of A&P shows, sheep, cattle and still some of the stereotypical stoic ‘she’ll be right’ attitude.

Cooling Room, Fairfield Freezing Works The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Canterbury Provincial District] 1902 The New Zealand Electronic Text Collection

Cooling Room, Fairfield Freezing Works
The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Canterbury Provincial District] 1902
The New Zealand Electronic Text Collection

On 26 June 1914 an advertisement for the upcoming ball was placed in the local paper.  As with many such events the gentlemen were expected to pay an entrance fee and the women were expected to bring along something to eat.

Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXXIII, Issue 8874, 26 June 1914, Page 1

Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXXIII, Issue 8874, 26 June 1914, Page 1

The day before the much-awaited fancy dress ball was held some disturbing news arrived from the other side of the world.  Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg had been assassinated on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo.

Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXXIII, Issue 8876, 29 June 1914, Page 5

Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXXIII, Issue 8876, 29 June 1914, Page 5

On the previous page in that paper you can see another reminder of the upcoming fancy dress ball.

Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXXIII, Issue 8876, 29 June 1914, Page 4

Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXXIII, Issue 8876, 29 June 1914, Page 4

I wonder how many of the locals read the news that morning before returning to work on their fancy dress costume, or if perhaps the assassination was discussed between dances that evening. However, it seems unlikely that anyone at the ball that night could have had any idea of just how large an impact that event on the other side of the world would have on their own community. The Ashburton Guardian reported on the ball the next day:

Ashburton Guardian , Issue 8878, 1 July 1914, Page 5

Ashburton Guardian , Issue 8878, 1 July 1914, Page 5

The detail of the ‘”flags of all nations” hanging from the ceiling seems especially poignant. In little over five weeks Britain, and by default, New Zealand would be at war and young men from around the country would rush to enlist and fight. The nations of the world would soon be divided into “us”, “them” and “undecided”.

Statistically it seems likely that many of those young men who had stumbled through the quadrilles and waltzes at the Orange Hall on 30 June 1914 would have fought and fallen in foreign fields. For many of the women who were there that night, the ball could well have been one of their last fond memories of life before the war changed everything and whisked loved ones away, some never to return.

The dance card remains as an innocent snapshot of a rural social scene one hundred years ago, of a community as it was just before it became caught up in a war on the other side of the world.

© Lemuel Lyes

D-Day Anniversary – Portsmouth

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Last year I shared some of my experiences exploring Omaha Beach, to mark the anniversary this year I thought I’d share some of my photos from a D-Day commemoration I attended in Portsmouth five years ago.

I was actually in Portsmouth on another historical pilgrimage of sorts; one involving a rather famous ship that once sailed into a rather famous battle with a rather famous naval commander on her quarterdeck. Portsmouth has undeniably strong connections to the history of the British navy going back centuries, but it also played a critical role in the D-Day invasion. It was here that British forces assembled before departing for Sword Beach in Normandy. There is a museum in Portsmouth dedicated to the D-Day landings and it is a central point for British commemorations of the invasion. As luck would have it I was there for the 65th anniversary.

There was a strong turn out of Second World War military vehicles. My favourite display was this mobile canteen.

Vintage WW2 Mobile Canteen on display © Lemuel Lyes 2009

Vintage WW2 Mobile Canteen on display
© Lemuel Lyes 2009

I had met a couple of off duty policemen on the train down from London who were on their way over to the commemorations in Normandy, where they were joining friends who owned a vintage military vehicle. They were friendly chaps who shared a couple of beers they had brought with them and chatted about their upcoming trip. The D-Day anniversary is a big day in the calendar of military vehicle enthusiasts, many of whom also dress up in historical uniforms and fall in alongside other reenactors. The historical re-enacting community attracts people for all sorts of reasons, I had dabbled in it myself when I was a teenager and some of the most dedicated reenactors that I met were those who had spent small fortunes making sure that their vintage jeep had all the historically correct accessories – to the point where it was inappropriate to not dress the part to complete the display.

Jeep on display at Portsmouth © Lemuel Lyes

Jeep on display at Portsmouth
© Lemuel Lyes 2009

Continue reading

Review: Jim’s Letters

Last month I was thrilled to receive a copy of Jim’s Letters, a new children’s book published by Penguin. They had approached me last year asking for permission to include images from my First World War postcard and postal history collection as elements within some of their illustrations. I had almost forgotten about it so what a wonderful surprise to have a copy of the book show up at my office one morning – and what a great job they have done!

JimsLetters_CoverJim’s Letters is an incredibly moving story told through the letters and postcards exchanged between a young boy in Otago and his older brother serving overseas, initially writing from the sands of Egypt and then from the trenches of Gallipoli. The characters are fictional but theirs is a story representative of the experiences of many New Zealand families who waited eagerly for news from a father, husband, son or brother.

As my regular readers will already appreciate, a simple postcard can open a personal window into the past. Jim’s Letters uses this to maximum effect, and also includes foldout letters, allowing the reader to hold the correspondence in their own hands. This is an incredibly engaging and tangible way to experience history. It is a technique that was also used recently in New Zealand and the First World War by Damien Fenton, also published by Penguin, which included pullout facsimiles of letters and ephemera. The latter was a much appreciated Christmas present!  As a collector it has long been a privilege to experience New Zealand history in this way and it is great to see others now have this opportunity.

Jim’s Letters was written by historian Glyn Harper and illustrated by Jenny Cooper, the same duo that previously collaborated on Le Quesnoy, another children’s book set during the First World War.

I’m always pleased to see history made more accessible, especially to children, so I was thrilled to be able to make a small contribution to this wonderful publication, which will help a new generation learn about the sacrifices made nearly one hundred years ago. I’m sure it will be a must have for any primary school teacher!

Look out for Jim’s Letters at your local bookstore or alternatively you can purchase it online. The release of the book is timely with ANZAC Day just around the corner and of course the upcoming centenary of the conflict.

© Lemuel Lyes

Charge of the New Zealand Cavalry at the Battle of Ōrākau

Cavalry units seldom saw combat in open terrain during the New Zealand Wars of the nineteenth century. The Māori had no wish to confront the British and colonial forces in conventional European battles in open fields, but instead usually fought in the bush, the hills, or behind the ramparts of their ingenious earthwork defences. Consequently, colonial cavalry units spent much of their time employed as scouts; as escorts for pack-horses or wagons; or raising civilian morale by parading through the towns looking handsome in their dashing tunics.   The last day of the Battle of Ōrākau was a rare exception, on 2 April 1864 – 150 years ago today.

It is hard to imagine a cavalry charge in New Zealand, but that is exactly what the illustration below purports to show. It was less than a decade after one of the most well-known cavalry charges of all time – that of the Light Brigade against the Russians at Crimea.

Charge of the New Zealand Cavalry at the Battle of Orakau Lemuel Lyes Collection

Charge of the New Zealand Cavalry at the Battle of Orakau
Lemuel Lyes Collection

Like the Light Brigade’s infamous gallop, and like nearly every other cavalry charge, the truth of the military action at Ōrākau isn’t nearly as glorious as how it is portrayed in art.

It was the last day of the Battle of Ōrākau and Rewi Maniapoto’s besieged warriors, along with some women and children, were low on ammunition and supplies. The British gave the defenders a chance to surrender but were instead met with these iconic words of defiance, “E hoa, ka whawhai tonu mātou, Āke! Āke! Āke! – Friend, we will fight on forever, forever and forever!” An offer for the women and children to leave unharmed was also refused, this time by Ahumai Te Paerata, the daughter of one of the chieftains, with the words “Ki te mate ngā tāne, me mate anō ngā wāhine me ngā tamariki’ – ‘If the men die, the women and children must die also.”

Hostilities continued and in desperation Rewi’s forces, along with the women and children, boldly broke through British lines and tried to make a run for it. They had no choice – but in the open they were vulnerable and the colonial cavalry pursued with their swords extended. The defenders tried to make it to the safety of a swamp, which was impassable for the horses, but many were cut down as they emerged into the open on the other side. There is rarely any real glory in a cavalry charge and this one was certainly no exception.

The illustration of the charge in my collection was published in the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia in 1886 with the title “CHARGE OF THE NEW ZEALAND CAVALRY AT THE BATTLE OF ORAKAU”. I’ve seen a number of framed examples like my one but this is the only copy I’ve personally encountered that has been coloured – although I should point out that this would have been the work of a different artist, possibly recently. The Alexander Turnbull Library also has a copy, which they attribute to a Frank P. Malony, however upon closer examination of the print in my collection the signature is actually that of well-known Australian colonial artist Frank P. Mahony.

He earned a reputation for his choice of horses as subjects and for illustrating action scenes. You can see some of his other work here, here and here. I’d love to know what happened to the original copy used in the Australasia Atlas – if anyone has any information please get in touch.

Of course the illustration does little to convey the truth of what happened that day – but it captured my attention and encouraged me to read more about it. When I first saw it I was surprised that there had been such an action here in New Zealand. Cavalry charges were supposed to happen on the distant battlefields of Europe, or during the American Civil War, and certainly not in the paddocks of the Waikato.

There has been some criticism that the 150th anniversaries of battles such as Rangiriri and Ōrākau have gone relatively unnoticed compared to anniversaries of more recent conflicts that were fought on foreign battlegrounds. I have to say that I agree with this. I do feel that the last six months have been a missed opportunity to better remember events that occurred in our own fields, bush and swamps – events that played an undeniably important part in the formation of this country and who we are today.

There is a fictional portrayal of the battle, including the inglorious cavalry charge, in Episode Five of The Governor (1977). For a long time this epic television drama was relatively inaccessible, I considered myself extremely lucky to have been able to watch the series on VHS while working on a TVNZ documentary series, but fortunately since then the team at NZOnscreen have done a remarkable job at making this episode available for viewing online. You can watch it here, and I really recommend you do:

The Governor - The Lame Seagull (Episode Five)

(Skip to Part 3 if you just want to see the cavalry charge).

To learn more about the battle of Ōrākau, or the Waikato Campaign in general, you can head on over to NZ History or, even better, visit your local library.  To read more about the use of mounted forces during the New Zealand Wars check out this fantastic article.

© Lemuel Lyes

WW1 Postcard: The Search for Trooper Harvey

As my regular readers will already be aware, among my collection of historical ephemera, military memorabilia and postal history are several albums of postcards sent by soldiers during the First World War. This year marks the centenary of the start of that conflict, so I’ll be sharing more of these cards, and more importantly, do my best to try and tell the story behind each one.

The postcard I want to share today was sent to a woman in Otakou, a small and historic settlement on the beautiful Otago Peninsula.  I found it a number of years ago in an antique shop just across the harbour from Otakou at Port Chalmers.  It shows a scene from nearly a century ago and half a world away.

Egyptian Postcard sent to New Zealand in December 1914 Lemuel Lyes Collection

Egyptian Postcard sent to New Zealand in December 1914
Lemuel Lyes Collection

On the back of the postcard is a message from a member of the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force – written just before they disembarked at Alexandria, Egypt.

Back of Postcard - Egypt, December 1914 Lemuel Lyes Collection

Back of Postcard – Egypt, December 1914
Lemuel Lyes Collection

“Dear Sylvy,

Have had a good trip. Are going into camp at Cairo. Rupert is doing fine. Had leave in Colombo for 6 hours had a good time. We lost 16 horses out of 725 on the trip. We will be disembarking at Alexandria tomorrow, it will be like parting from an old friend leaving this boat. I remain your obedient trooper.

Will Harvey”

According to the Cenotaph database there were at least sixteen William Harveys that fought for New Zealand during the First World War, however there are several clues that can help identify which of them sent this postcard.  The first clue is the date of the postmark, which indicates that the sender arrived in Egypt with the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in early December 1914.  This narrows the candidates down considerably. Only two William Harveys left New Zealand in 1914, another three left in 1915, five in 1916, four in 1917 and two in 1918. Continue reading

Flag Debate: The Silver Fern

Prime Minister John Key recently reignited the debate about New Zealand’s national flag.  The same old arguments for and against any change are already being trundled out and so I thought I’d add my two pence.  I’m not yet entirely convinced that change is needed at all, but if change is inevitable then there does seem to be a strong argument for the raising of one of our most beloved icons – the silver fern.

Our current flag evolved from the Royal Navy’s blue ensign in the 1860’s, saw irregular use through the late nineteenth century and became official in 1902.  It is hard to not be attached to, or even get a little emotional about, the flag that once flew over Quinn’s Post at Gallipoli, was raised at Jack Lovelock’s medal ceremony at the 1936 Berlin Olympics or was flown at half-mast during tragedies both past and recent.  A long and proud history is part of what makes a strong flag – that sense of continuity between the past, the present and the future.

I should admit to being excessively nostalgic at times (surprise!) and can harbor discontent at any seemingly unnecessary cosmetic changes – especially when they relate to heritage.  Yet despite that, I’m open-minded to the suggestion of a flag change, that is, as long as any replacement still maintains a strong link to our past.  With that in consideration the silver fern does seem to be a potential candidate.  I looked through my personal collection of historical ephemera for the earliest example I could find of the silver fern being used as an emblem – and found this field stationary set that belonged to a New Zealand soldier in the First World War.

Silver Fern and Kiwi on cover of First World War stationary kit Lemuel Lyes Collection

Silver Fern and Kiwi on cover of First World War stationary kit
Lemuel Lyes Collection

Inside of New Zealand soldier's stationary kit, Xmas 1917 Lemuel Lyes Collection

Inside of New Zealand soldier’s stationary kit, Xmas 1917
Lemuel Lyes Collection

This stationary set emblazoned with the silver fern and kiwi was distributed to New Zealanders on the Western Front.  This example belonged to Hugh Anderson Thompson who embarked with the 29th Reinforcements on 13th August 1917.   At this time some military vehicles such as ambulances and staff cars were also marked with the silver fern. Continue reading