The Pukerua Railway Camp

Sudden death, stabbing and robberies: The Wild West? No – the Pukerua railway camp.

During the construction of the railway tunnels between 1884 to 1886 up to 400 men were employed at any one time by Samuel Brown the contractor. The No. 15 contract, for construction of the railway between Pukerua and Paekakariki including six tunnels, was “considered the most difficult and important [contract] on the line.”¹ Many of the men lived at Pukerua in what was known as “the railway camp” or “Brown’s camp”. They lived in tents, whares and huts or stayed in “boarding houses,” which were probably just tents with wooden floors.

The brick makers, bricklayers, tunnelers, quarrymen, woodcutters, stonemasons and navvies walked from Wellington round Porirua Harbour from Pauatahanui, up the Kakaho Stream valley then over the saddle and down to the camp. Contractors, managers, foremen and the better paid tradespeople travelled by coach to Pauatahanui and walked to the camp or took passage on one of the coastal steamers calling onto Pukerua.

With so many men in the camp there were incidents such as robberies of watches, money, jewellery and even clothing. During this time the New Zealand Police Gazette had fourteen entries for Pukerua including a one pound reward notice for a sixteen year old ship deserter. More dramatic was a fire in a whare which had dynamite and blasting caps stored inside. The two miners who lived in the whare made a very hasty exit. Although the caps exploded the dynamite “burned quietly” but they lost all their clothes.

Generally the camp was peaceful but in June 1886 two miners who shared a whare had an argument. One was stabbed with a miner’s candlestick, a sharp pointed iron candle holder used in mines and tunnels. The charge of unlawful wounding was changed by mutual consent to common assault and both miners were bound by the Magistrate to keep the peace for six months.

Benjamin Thatcher, a man who already knew the inside of a Magistrate’s Court, ran one of the boarding houses at the Pukerua railway camp. As well as accommodation and meals Thatcher provided the workmen with alcohol. But he never had a licence nor was there any way to hide the barrels of beer rowed ashore from the s.s.Tui. Constable Roche from Paekakariki saw 120 gallons of beer from the Thorndon Brewery being landed at Pukerua for Thatcher on 16 May 1885. Thatcher was subsequently charged at the Paekakariki Police Court with sly-grog selling. Constable Roche said, “that the vicinity of Thatcher’s house was one of the most dangerous places in New Zealand for drunken men to frequent, as they had to pass a high and precipitous cliff going backwards and forwards.”² Thatcher was fined £20 and costs or one month in prison with hard labour if the fine was not paid. Later that same year he was fined 20 shillings, with 7 shillings costs for being drunk in charge of a horse at Pukerua. However, two months later the horse may have had its revenge. While Thatcher was riding beside the contractor’s tramway he was thrown from the horse with “great force” onto the iron rails. He was badly injured and taken to Wellington Hospital by train.

Running a boarding house at Pukerua during construction of the railway was a risky business. Three Pukerua boarding house keepers at the railway camp, James Edward Raistrick, Edward Robinson and Edward Henry Banks, ended up in court when each, at different times, was declared bankrupt.

In September 1884 a Post Office and Post Office Savings Bank were established at Pukerua with John Laughton, the works manager, as postmaster. Many men spent all of their first pay on alcohol and were absent next day. Samuel Brown announced that from then on anyone absent after pay day would be dismissed and he advised workers to make use of the Savings Bank. This advice was heeded and there were no more absences following pay day. Laughton encouraged workers to save and on one occasion over £300 was deposited by Pukerua workmen into the Savings Bank.

In late August 1885 the badly decomposed body of a man was found up a gully near the camp. He was identified as Richard Price, a striker who worked with the blacksmith Malcolm Mclntyre. The inquest heard that in June Price was planning to work on a bridge near Woodville and his mates thought he had left even though the body was only 150 yards from his hut. He was known to be a heavy drinker and this may have contributed to his demise.

The Pukerua railway camp was disbanded with the opening of the railway and so ended a most colourful time of Pukerua’s history.

By Ashley Blair, Pukerua Bay Heritage Group.

References

  1. “Wellington and Manawatu Railway” New Zealand Mail, Issue 656, 19 September 1884, (Supplement) p. 1
  2. “Sly grog-Selling at Pukerua” Evening Post, Volume XXX, Issue 2, 2 July 1885, p. 3

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