Monday, November 24, 2008

“Get me out if you can” – William Inskip, 1886

I found the details of the dreadful mishap that happened to William Inskip one January day in 1886 quite by accident. Normally, something like this I’m able to turn into a short, 400-word or so piece for the Spider’s Web. But not this one, there was too much detail I’d have to carve away for the limited space. And I felt poor Mr. Inskip deserved better than that. The following is a summary gleaned from the NZ Herald and Auckland Star at the time, as well as a website on the 65th regiment’s history.

It was a dry summer, back in January 1886. Drought had hit Auckland hard, and Avondale back then could only rely on what water was left in the rain tanks and what could be found in deep wells bored into the clay and lined with brick. One Avondale resident, local butcher John Wickham, had a dry well on the property he and his family rented from merchant John Buchanan near the Whau Bridge – so, he asked William Inskip, a 62 year old well-digger, to clean out and deepen the 40 foot well.

William John Inskip had formerly been part of the 65th (2nd North Yorkshire Riding) Regiment of Foot. The 65th is known as the regiment with the longest record of service in New Zealand, from 1846 to 1865, known by their official nickname as the “Royal Tigers”, but also by the name given to them by Maori, the “hickety pips”, after the Maori pronunciation of “65th” – “hikete piwhete.” Initially, the regiment served as guards on convict ships bound for Australia in 1845-1846, but were diverted, travelling from Sydney to both the Bay of Islands (location of the first Maori Wars at the time) and Auckland. Much of the time the regiment served in New Zealand, the troops were split up and stationed around the North Island. From 1858, part of the regiment was in Napier, where William Inskip is said to have learned the well-digging trade. The whole regiment was stationed at Albert Barracks in Auckland by 1861, and took part in the invasion of the Waikato in 1863.

The 65th were well-known for having an unusually good rapport with their Maori opponents, well-commented upon at the time. From the online history of the regiment:
“There was reportedly a strong respect and chivalrous, almost friendly behaviour between the 65th Regiment and the Maori. No such respect existed for some other units, e.g. the 70th being taunted to "Go back to India". The Forest Rangers were particularly disliked, probably due to their use of guerrilla tactics, which offended the Maori warrior code.

“For example, as described in The York and Lancaster Regiment, Vol 1, p 112, when pickets from the 65th went into the bush at night, they would identify themselves to the Maori and ask them if there would be fighting that night. If the reply was something like "Not tonight - too wet and cold; we’d better get some sleep. Good night, Hickety Pip," both sides would honour the agreement. If there was going to be an attack, they would be given warning, then be expected to fight like any other regiment.

“On other occasions, during a lull in fighting, there would be a temporary truce and the Maori and men would exchange food and tobacco and the Maori would point out where they had carefully buried and neatly fenced off, the bodies of 65th men. On another occasion, when the 65th led an assault on a pa, a Maori shouted out for the Regiment to lie down, because they wanted to fire at the following regiments. The request was ignored.

“The respect of the regiment for their enemies was such that a memorial plaque was placed in St John's Church, Te Awamutu.”
When the regiment embarked for England in 1865, less than half the regiment were on board the two ships. William Inskip was one of those who chose to stay behind in the colony. By 1886 he was married with a large family, the youngest being nine years old, and living on the Avondale-Manukau Road (likely present-day Blockhouse Bay Road).

Starting work at Wickham’s on Monday 25 January at 7.45 am, Inskip brought along William H. Scarlett to assist, and both Wickham and Scarlett lowered Inskip carefully to the well’s muddy bottom using a sling. Then Wickham went off to his shop up in the township, while Inskip and Scarlett set to work scooping the three feet of mud from the bottom of the well. Suddenly, Inskip remarked that “the earth was slipping and running like sand under the lower course of bricks”. Scarlett, alarmed, called down, “Take care of yourself, Bill, whatever you do!” There was a cry of alarm then from Inskip, and he called for the rope. Scarlett hurriedly threw the rope down the well after detaching a bucket – but too late. Just then, the well collapsed, the walls falling inward in tiers, an estimated 1300 bricks toppling down upon the hapless Inskip below, along with earth and clay. The topmost levels remained, but the debris was some 15 feet deep.

Scarlett said later he heard groans from the entombed man, as he quickly sought help. A carter passing along the road was hailed, and asked to get assistance. The carter went to fetch a Mr. Goldie nearby in New Lynn, but a carpenter named James Forsyth arrived, joined soon after by Wickham (who had been alerted by his son) and a Mr. Benton. Scarlett and Forsyth removed the last of the bricking still in place in order to make any rescue safer, and then men volunteered to go down in the sling to start removing the bricks entombing Inskip. One report recorded that the last words Inskip was heard to utter at that point were “Get me out if you can.”

Wickham headed for the Avondale telephone bureau (most likely, given those early days, the Avondale Railway Station) to send a telegraph to the police all the way out in the city. Superintendent Thomson promptly sent Constable Kelly on horseback out to Avondale. Meantime, the rescue party found the shaft was becoming increasingly unstable, more earth falling in. Local grocer Henry Peck arrived and volunteered to go down and pass up the bricks – but five minutes after he was lowered down in the sling another fall of earth took place, and he was hoisted up. He was said to have been the last one to hear Inskip moaning, at 10 o’clock that morning. From that time on, the unfortunate man made no further sound.

Avondale residents gathered at the scene, including Inskip’s eldest son. The rescuers chose not to tell Mrs. Inskip of the tragedy until midday, in the hope that Inskip may have been rescued alive by that time. Mrs. Goldie from New Lynn went up to the Inskip house to break the news to his wife. Devastated, Mrs. Inskip headed straight down to the Wickhams’ to see for herself, but was persuaded to go back home by her friends on finding that nothing could be done. She did so, but returned later in the day to see what progress, if any, had been made.

A party of men returned to Avondale to get timber for shoring up the sides of the shaft, and Benton and Forsyth prepared the timber and made sets for slabbing. Henry Peck once again volunteered to go down to fix the timber in unsafe places, relieved by a Mr. Smith. Once the timber was in place, preventing more slippages, gangs of men worked to start bringing the fallen bricks up and off Inskip, with one man down the well in the sling passing the bricks and earth up to the other rescuers. The NZ Herald recorded the names of those involved with the work that day: James Forsyth, Benton, Simpson, Smith, Peck, Scarlett, James Heaphy, Goldie, Taylor, Webb, Ringrose, Bollard “and others whose names we could not ascertain.” Wickham and Peck kept tea and other refreshments going for the workers, and a boy was sent out to the Avondale Hotel for beer for the men in the mid-afternoon.

The work continued laboriously on towards dusk, the ground around the shaft still uncertain and described as “being in the nature of quicksand, and treacherous.” Lights were obtained, and by gaslight more helpers arrived as the news rippled out across the communities of both Avondale and New Lynn, including Robert Garrett from the Garrett Tannery in Waterview, and Francis Gittos.

Around 10 pm, one of William Inskip’s arms was discovered protruding through the rubbish of bricks and earth. The rescuers redoubled their efforts, desperately trying to reach him. A quarter hour later, they had succeeded in getting his head clear, but by then it was certain he was dead. It was another two hours of painstaking removal of the debris that had entombed him alive before they were able to hoist his body up out of the well shaft. “The task was a dangerous one,” the Herald reported, “as the body was so jammed in the bricks that it was necessary to get a purchase on the windlass to draw it out of the debris. When this was done a rope was fastened round the body and it was hoisted up to the bank amid the hurried whispers of the group standing around the well, Mr. Smith being brought up afterwards.”

From what was seen of the position of his body when it was found, Inskip at the time of the brick lining’s collapse on top of him tried to protect his head by raising his arms – hence why an arm was the first part of him found. There were some cuts to his head, a dent in the chest along with some blood, but it appeared that he had suffocated.

I don’t know what happened to his family, whether they stayed in Avondale or just simply moved on. But it is worth even just a passing thought as you travel along Great North Road, heading along the sweeping curve that takes you towards the Whau Bridge and on towards New Lynn – that somewhere close to that bridge, either in the vicinity of the pensioner flats up on the rise to the left, or in amongst the houses and their driveways to the right, somewhere there a man died so dreadfully that summer’s morning in 1883. Somewhere there, as well, people in a small rural community rallied around and refused, right to the bitter end and at great personal risk to their own lives, to give up on their friend and their neighbour. That is also part of this sad story that should not be forgotten today.

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