Unveiling of headstone recalls pioneer tragedy

22:11, Jan 22 2014
HISTORICAL TIES: The Mead family were among about 60 people who attended the unveiling of a memorial plaque to Thompson family members at Kaukapakapa.

About 60 people from throughout the North Island gathered at Kaukapakapa Methodist Cemetery to commemorate the tragic deaths of two of their ancestors 150 years ago.

A large bronze plaque donated by the family was unveiled by the Rev Felicity Smith on December 22 last year.

A terrible misjudgment of the local political situation by one man caused the deaths of Mathilda Thompson and 14-year-old daughter Olivia on December 21, 1863.

The Thompson family arrived from Northern Ireland in 1860. John Thompson, wife Mathilda and daughters Olivia and Hannah (Anna) with their Irish labourer James Abbott, travelled on the Commodore Perry.

Their older daughters Florinda and Elizabeth came from London on May 12, 1859, on the Caducous.

John Thompson bought 146 hectares at Peak Rd, Kaukapakapa, calling it Violet Hill Farm.


To earn some immediate income he worked as a mailman, which involved a two-day trip to Riverhead.

For more than two years the family had been visited frequently by Ruarangi, a friendly young chief who taught the daughters Maori and bought sugar and flour from Mrs Thompson.

On December 21, while Mr Thompson was on the mail run, Ruarangi visited the house as usual.

However, he had recently returned from the Waikato where his relatives were involved in the Land Wars. Aged only 23, he thought to start an uprising in the north.

He returned later that afternoon and while Mrs Thompson was weighing out the requested sugar, he decapitated her with a felling axe.

Florinda, the eldest daughter, standing next to her mother holding a nine-month-old baby, asked: "Why didn't you kill me and let my mother live?"

Waving the axe over her head he declared he would kill all the white women at McLeods' (in Helensville) before Christmas.

Florinda screamed to sisters Anna, 11, and Olivia, 14, milking the cows at the stock yard. They ran up the hill through scrub to the nearest neighbours, the Penney brothers.

Florinda, carrying the baby, ran down the gully.

Olivia was caught by Ruarangi and killed in the same manner as her mother.

Anna met the Penneys who had heard screams and were walking towards the Thompsons' with their dogs, but Ruarangi ran off.

Finding no one at the Penneys, Florinda set out for Smiths Sawmill 8km away, arriving exhausted at 10pm.

Early next morning Thomas Smith set out for Lamb's Mill at Riverhead to catch a boat to Auckland.

Mr Lamb sent two men to the Thompsons to investigate and presumably bury the victims. News of the murders spread rapidly.

All the bushmen between Peak Rd and Riverhead released their bullocks and abandoned their tools.

They rushed home to escort their families to Lamb's Mill fearing the Land Wars in the Waikato would spread.

In Auckland 40 militia men along with guide, linguist and artist Captain Charles Heaphy, Major General Galloway and Rev Blackburn prepared to travel to Kaukapakapa.

Chief Paul (Paora) of Orakei, afraid of repercussions, told the governor he would go to the Kaipara himself to ensure the culprit was handed over.

Arriving at the Thompsons, they disinterred the bodies. Captain Heaphy, saying he had studied some areas of medicine, acted as coroner. Rev Blackburn and Major General Galloway held a funeral service before the formal burial.

John Thompson, learning his wife and daughter had been murdered, threatened to shoot every Maori he saw. Mr Lamb detained him with Florinda and Anna at the mill.

When his daughters were called to identify the culprit, Mr Thompson refused to let them go to Helensville. Three times he tried to escape by night to Auckland with them. Finally, a police party of six, along with a sergeant, were called to escort them to Helensville.

On Christmas Day, between 250 and 300 men and about nine chiefs assembled near the McLeods' (probably the foot of Garfield Rd), as John Thompson and some of the police watched from the hilltop.

Florinda's hand was held by chief Paul and Hanna's by Rev Gittos. Suddenly Florinda dropped the chief's hand, indicated with her furled parasol, and shouted, "That is the man who killed my mother!"

Ruarangi had shaved his beard and was, in spite of the warm weather, wearing a greatcoat and had a hat pulled down over his eyes.

There was no doubt about his identity as he had Britannia and her wheel tattooed on his arm and his own name tattooed as a bracelet around his wrist.

He was arrested and many speeches by the chiefs followed. All emphasised that Ngati Whatua was a peaceful tribe wishing to live by the Queen's law, and that the murders were the work of one evil man.

Ruarangi was farewelled by his tribe. The police party then set off for Riverhead.

The tribe held a tangi for Ruarangi, acting as if he was already dead, and tried to comfort his wife and child.

Ruarangi was sentenced on March 26, 1864, still proclaiming his innocence. He was hanged on April 18 at Mt Eden prison.

The authorities, alarmed by Mr Thompson's threats, decided to buy his farm and settle the family at Paparata near Bombay.

John Rogan, surveyor and resident magistrate, rode out from Helensville to value Violet Hill, assisted by Mr Lamb. The farm became Crown land and was leased until 1972 when it was bought from the government by a farmer.

Some weeks after Mr Thompson was removed, his crops of barley, oats and garden produce were ready for harvesting.

Friend Morris Henley, later builder of the now listed Henley House, and James Abbott, the Irish farmhand, were working on this when they saw two Maori coming over a hill.

They immediately fired a volley of shots at them, only to learn the Maori were working with Mr Tole, a surveyor, and that they'd come to drink at the stream. Fortunately the bullets missed.

In court, one of the Maori said: "Those people must have been blind."

Henley and Abbott were charged. Henley was acquitted but Abbot was released on surety of three sums of £300 and finally acquitted.

A national paper's deaths column on May 4, 1866, stated "Mr Thompson has brought the remains of both his wife and daughter to Auckland, and they were yesterday placed in the Presbyterian burial grounds."

This was part of the Symonds St cemetery, later disturbed by the motorway.

Violet Hill Farm is now owned by Isla and Keith Willis. This story and photos will feature at the society's stall at the Helensville A&P Show on February 22.

Rodney Times