Sunday, February 8, 2009

Litigation from the maritime highways

The highways connecting the main centres of Auckland and Onehunga in this region for the early decades of European settlement were the two harbours, the Waitemata and the Manukau, and the tributary rivers. Transport of goods by sea didn’t always go smoothly, however. Mishaps happened, some due to sudden changes in the weather, some due to overloading or general poor seamanship. The following instances both ended up in the courts – and thus, we have the information on the circumstances today.

John Thomas and the foundering of the Mount Eden – November 1863

(The following adapted from part 1 of Terminus.)

John Thomas, first proprietor of the Star Mill on the banks of the mouth of the Oakley Creek, in Waterview, had for some time regularly used the services of Jeremiah Casey and his 20-ton open cargo cutter Mount Albert to convey supplies of wheat to his mill at Oakley Creek before early November 1863. That year, the Waikato War began in earnest. Auckland’s fleet of small cargo boats were pre-empted and occupied with servicing the needs of the military, while the fleet’s crews and owners were called into part-time militia service (Casey testified at the hearing that he told Thomas “that had it been at any other time I would have gone myself; but I had been carrying a gun all night.”) With certainty of supply for the mill in question, Thomas was even at the point of deciding whether he would build his own boat.

Thomas purchased 14 tons of Adelaide wheat at this time from John Sangster Macfarlane – only to find out that Casey, his usual means of conveying the bags to his mill back at Oakley Creek, had two boats both already occupied with carrying coals to the troopship Himalaya, including the cutter preferred by Thomas, the Mount Albert. Outside the Waitemata Hotel, Thomas secured an offer from Casey to lend Thomas the services of the Mount Eden, an 18-tonner, if Thomas could find men on the wharf that day to crew her. This Thomas did – only to lose much of the valuable cargo to the waters of the harbour when a squall blew up close to the shoreline by Low & Motion’s property at Western Springs and swamped the Mount Eden, ultimately sinking her. Thomas did get as much of his cargo back as could be salvaged, but tried suing Casey for the total cost of the consignment, plus damages; he ended up losing the case heard before the Supreme Court in June the following year. It was a mix, the jury decided, of an unavoidable Act of God, plus the lack of a written contract between Thomas and Casey. I wouldn’t be surprised if Casey had refused to carry any more wheat for Thomas ever again. The Mount Eden was salvaged by Casey, and continued in service on the harbour for some time afterward.

The Gittos Tannery at the Whau and the overladen Scotchman – October 1874

In 1874, the Whau River was still a preferred means of conveying bulk goods to businesses such as the Gittos Tannery, even though the carriage of bulk bark for example most likely meant a bit of a gut-busting haul for horses drawing the carts from the bridge up St Judes’ hill to the tannery next to New North and Blockhouse Bay Roads.

For ten years, Benjamin Gittos, a little later with his sons John and James, had used the waterway’s sole bridge as their off-loading area for bark used in the preparation of tannic acid. When he purchased 600 bags of bark (weighing 50 tons) from off the Tien Tsin out from Launceston, John Gittos contracted the use of John Lamb’s steamer Scotchman to convey the bark from the wharf to the Whau Bridge. Trouble was, the Scotchman was registered to carry only 30 tons (although Lamb would testify that he had conveyed 60 tons in her hold just before the bark incident with no mishap, and could carry up to 70 tons); her engineer suggested carrying only 400 bags as a first of two loads to save a tide at the river, but this was overruled. The steamer left the city wharf on the afternoon of Friday 2 October. Even before reaching the mouth of the Whau River, her master, Frank Hodges, noticed leakage into her cargo hold. Her load had set the Scotchman so deep in the water, that it was lapping six inches over the vessel’s watertight copper skin. At the mouth of the river, with darkness falling and awaiting the incoming tide, the master anchored the Scotchman, and proceeded to pump water out of the hold.

They set off the next day on the tide, but there was further calamity; somehow, the steamer missed the winding channel in the centre of the river, and hit mudbanks. More water sloshed into the hold. The pumps were set going again, and the vessel made its slow way upstream to the bridge landing. 97 out of the 600 bags were found to be in a damaged condition, the salt water having leached much of the valuable tannic acid out from the bark. The Gittos family were livid, left the cargo of damaged bark at the landing place under tarpaulins, and demanded compensation. John Lamb denied all liability, and so it went to court on 27 October 1874. In early November, the tanners were awarded £56 11s 8d in damages.

The Scotchman, by the way, went on to become a long-lasting cargo and excursion steamer on the harbour.

Aside from court cases, another of my favourite sources of detailed information, even if coloured by opinion and often over-the-top description, are letters written to and published by newspapers of the time. While all the argy-bargy was taking place legally between Lamb and the Gittos family over the damaged bark, a short series of letters appeared in the Auckland Evening Star that October.

21 October 1874:
“To the Editor: Sir, -- Allow me to draw your attention to an intolerable nuisance, a nuisance although the party causing it has been frequently expostulated with, remains in all its danger. Close to the Whau Bridge, and tied to the bridge itself, is a large quantity of bark piled, covered with a tarpaulin, which flaps up and down with every gust of wind. Mr. McLeod, of Henderson’s-mill, had a very narrow escape of his life through it a few days back – not only him but the life of a valuable horse as well that shied at it. As the settlers of the Whau are treated with contemptuous indifference when they expostulate with the owners, I have thought it as well to bring it under the notice of the authorities through the Star. – I am, &c., T. B. HANNAFORD for ANDREW DILWORTH.”

McLeod was a well-known Henderson settler, associated in the early 1870s with the establishment of the first hotel in Henderson township, now known as The Falls Hotel. Andrew Dilworth was a settler at Waitakere since the mid 1860s or so.

The Gittos family, Benjamin, John, James (and Francis, who wasn’t part of the firm at that point) weren’t exactly well-known for being difficult people to get on with. Granted, they were strict Methodist temperance believers, but they had friends in the local community and in the city. The firm responded to Hannaford and Dilworth’s criticism thus:

22 October 1874:
“To the Editor: Sir, -- In your columns of yesterday appeared an offensive letter signed by “T. B. Hannaford for Andrew Dilworth” having reference to a quantity of bark, piled in bags, lying near the Whau bridge, and covered with a tarpaulin. We may say that the bark is on private property; not on any public landing-place or near to one; also, that it is not a nuisance of any kind whatever, and that during the last ten years no complaint has ever been made. In fact the settlers at the Whau are only too glad to see the bark so landed for manufacturing purposes. We have no doubt Mr. McLeod can take care of himself without the kind interference of “T. B. Hannaford for Andrew Dilworth”; and would respectfully suggest to the writer the propriety of attending to his own business. Trusting you will kindly insert this, We are &c., B. GITTOS and SONS.”
This further attracted Andrew Dilworth’s ire. Dispensing with his intermediary, he wrote a letter himself to the Star, and laid down West Auckland’s claim to the Whau Bridge and happened to its surrounds over any by the folk at Avondale. (This wasn’t a groundless opinion on Dilworth’s part – from the 1850s to the early 20th century, Avondale-side local authorities left most of the decision making and financing of upkeep and replacement of the bridges to either provincial authorities or the later Waitemata County Council.)

24 October 1874:
“To the Editor: Sir, -- It is only at intervals that I visit Auckland, generally on market days, and have therefore few opportunities of writing to the newspapers were I so minded. I did empower Mr. T. B. Hannaford to write you with reference to what I again repeat to be an intolerable and highly dangerous nuisance at the Whau bridge. I have read Messrs Gittos and Sons letter which appeared in Thursday’s Star, and unhesitatingly denounce it as false. They well know when they wrote that letter that the bark complained of is not that which had been stacked there for some eighteen months past, but a lot that was brought down by the S.S. Scotchman some three weeks ago.

“I have this morning (Friday) been to the Waste Lands Office and inspected the map, and positively assert that they aver that the bark is stacked on private property. It is nothing of the sort; it is stacked on the Queen’s highway, fastened to the Whau bridge, and to the annoyance and positive danger to life and limb of Her Majesty’s subjects.

“Messrs Gittos say the Whau people do not complain about it, but are, on the contrary, pleased to see it there as it betokens vitality in the district. What have the Whau people to do with it? They have nothing in common with the settlers further North, the Whau township being considerably away from the bridge; indeed, many of the Whau residents, whose business journeys are confined between the City of Auckland and their homes, don’t see the bridge from one year’s end to another. It is the settlers from Albertland, Wangarei, Matakana, Mahurangi, Waitakerei, and places adjacent who are affected by the illegal and dangerous obstruction, and who are determined by every legal means to get it removed. To show you the importance, Mr. Editor, of keeping that bridge free in every way for traffic I may tell you that during this spring alone upwards of 900 head of cattle have passed over it. – I am, &c., A. DILWORTH.”
Well, he was right – in the early 1870s, traffic was predominantly from the west and north-west, rather than from Avondale and the rest of the isthmus over the bridge. (This, of course, was to change markedly from the mid 1880s, with the development of Waikumete Cemetery, the Kaipara Railway, Binsted’s abattoir at New Lynn, and increased job opportunities in agriculture and industry out west.)

The Gittos firm closed the correspondence with this letter.

26 October 1874:
“To the Editor: Sir, -- In reply to a letter in your issue of Saturday, signed “A. Dilworth,” we beg to say that although compelled to differ from some of the statements in it, yet we trust Mr. Dilworth will no longer feel sore on the subject when we tell him the bark in question will be removed in a day or two. It is not our practice to store bark at the Whau bridge at all, and this would not have been placed there either if it had not been for a dispute with the owner of the “Scotchman”, and pending legal proceedings. Trusting you will kindly insert this, our last letter on the subject, -- Yours, &c., B.GITTOS AND SONS.”

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