Restoration project uncovers stories

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Waihopai City Lions member and Cemetery Project leader Rhonda Hoffman and Friends of Lions Grant Hayes alongside the recently restored headstone of Railways locomotive fireman John [Jack] Henderson, who died on August 23, 1883, after being shot while working at the locomotive's boiler while the train was travelling from Clinton to Invercargill.

NEW life is being given to old headstones and cemetery plots at Invercargill’s Eastern Cemetery.

Having been shot at age 30, Railways employee John Henderson was buried in August 1883. His headstone at the cemetery was not only showing decades of age – more than 130 years – through weathering, but it was also broken.

His was the first chosen by the Waihopai City Lions as part of its Cemetery Project.

The headstone before it was restored.

Club member and project leader Rhonda Hoffman said the project was initiated after members had talked about how beautiful and well-kept Invercargill’s Eastern Cemetery was, but how sad it was to see how damaged some of the older graves and headstones were.

“The cemetery is a living document of Southland’s history and stories,” Mrs Hoffman said.

“By focusing on tidying or restoring these plots and headstones, it draws attention back to them and people’s life and stories.”

Referred to as the victim of the Wairuna Tragedy, Mr Henderson’s headstone was the first to be restored because of its historical nature and the sad story behind it, she said.

“We are hoping that John Henderson’s grave will be the first of many, as this will be an ongoing project,” Mrs Hoffman said.

Each grave site would be researched and documented, with the aim of eventually collating the information into a book, she said.

“The cemetery contains Southland’s history and there are some amazing historical stories which have been buried. We hope to bring the stories back.”

Mrs Hoffman asked Wilson Fraser, of J Fraser and Sons, to help with the restoration of the headstones, which he agreed to “without hesitation”, she said.

Club members, Friends of Lions and the team from J Frasers and Sons levelled the sunken plot, and levelled and realigned the base of the headstone before reattaching the marble headstone, which monumental mason Craig Stoneman had treated and cleaned.

As part of the ongoing project, which was supported by the Invercargill City Council Parks Division, the group and volunteers would continue to tidy up some of the older broken concrete-topped sunken graves with woodchips, not only to beautify the area but also to make them safer, Mrs Hoffman said.

She was keen to hear from others who had suggestions for the next headstone project, people who were interested in researching history, as well as from more volunteers to help with restoration of the graves.

Email ideas to waihopai.city.lions@gmail.com

He was only 30…

HE was only 30 when he was killed – shot while at work.

It was a workplace “accident” of the most unusual sort.

The number seven south goods steam train, which John Henderson was the fireman on, had pulled away from the Clinton station and was heading to Invercargill, according to historical blogger Donald Cochrane.

Known as Jack, Mr Henderson worked alongside his two colleagues, driver Peter Dunn and brakesman Charles Simmonds. The guard, W Duncan, was at the rear of the train in the guard’s van at the time of the incident.

Before emigrating to New Zealand a year previously, Mr Henderson had been an engine driver in India.

It was the evening of August 23, 1883, and the train was travelling along its usual route.

At a speed of about 12mph, the train had entered a short cutting just over three miles west of Clinton when a shot was heard from the left-hand bank, about 10 feet up.

Then a second shot.

The people on the train were reported to have said “the click of the gun hammer was distinctly heard and, being night-time, the flash of the blast was seen from up on the bank”.

Mr Henderson had been shot.

Confusion and fear took hold.

Because no one knew why the shots had been fired or exactly where from, and also because they were afraid, no search was made of the area.

Instead a marker was dropped, and the lights on the train were quickly extinguished.

The guard was called to the engine. The train reversed back to Clinton, which was against Railways policy but as this was an emergency the policy was disregarded.

Mr Henderson was dead by the time the train arrived back at Clinton, having been shot in the chest and lower stomach.

Although remote, the Clinton station was also a busy railway station, with a post and telegraph office, so news of the “mysterious murder” was sent to Invercargill and Dunedin, making it into the morning editions of some southern newspapers, with various headlines – Mysterious Murder on the Southern Line, The Wairuna Tragedy, as the event took place about a mile from the nearby Wairuna station, The Southland Tragedy, The Clinton Mystery, and The Fatal Outrage

The next day police officers from Dunedin and surrounding towns arrived at the cutting, and a small broken flute was found nearby.

The police soon discovered that three brothers, James (19), John (18) and Alexander Roy (14), had been out that night rabbit shooting.

They were quickly arrested and their two recently fired guns were also collected. The police also found the other half of the flute with them.

The boys admitted they had fired at the train, but said they had no idea they had done any damage, and although they had heard of Mr Henderson’s death early that morning, they still did not think they had harmed anyone.

No charges were laid against John, but James and Alexander were charged. Labelled as a result of reckless mischief, it was believed they had meant to hit the engine but had miscalculated the speed of the train in the dark.

Both were tried in the Supreme Court in Dunedin and were found guilty of manslaughter, with leniency recommended by the grand jury. Alexander was eventually acquitted and James imprisoned in the Dunedin jail for two months, but without hard labour. He died in 1885 of kidney disease at Wairuna.

About 300 people attended Mr Henderson’s funeral in Invercargill two days after his death, with Railways employees raising funds for his headstone.

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