Thursday, 22 October 2020

WHITIANGA WEATHER

The tragic tales of Mercury Bay’s Eyre Family

A heavy shower of rain foiled 17-year-old Alfred Eyre’s pheasant shooting expedition on a Sunday afternoon in April 1891.

Alfred was out hunting some five miles from Mercury Bay and as he passed the Shealand home, Mrs Shealand invited him to take shelter on the verandah. As the pair were talking, the butt of the gun slipped on the wet flooring of the vernadah and, striking the hammer, discharged the weapon, shooting Alfred.

A shocked Mrs Shealand helped Alfred to bed and then hurried two miles for her husband who then went to get Dr Bedford. The doctor was soon on the scene, but had little hope for young Alfred’s recovery. As he could not be moved, he was left at the Shealand’s residence. Constable Dunn, after examining the gun, reported that it was the most dangerous he had ever seen, the hammer being tied with string. The Observer’s Mercury Bay correspondent noted that Alfred was “in a very bad state, but it is hoped that he will get over it.” Despite the area’s hopes, Alfred died from his injuries two days later.

Eighteen years after this terrible event, Alfred’s brother, Harry, aged 39, a saw doctor at the Kauri Timber Company’s mill in Whitianga, was putting a slab of timber through a saw when a loose piece was thrown over the saw, striking him with terrific force. He was immediately carried round to the hospital, but died a few minutes before admission. Harry was a single man, well known and respected, and his death cast quite a gloom over the area. Much sympathy was expressed for his mother and family. The official opening of the local creamery was, in consequence of this accident, postponed until the following week.

Several days after Harry’s death, in November 1909, the Eyre family were again struck by tragedy when a five-roomed cottage owned by the Kauri Timber Company and occupied by Mrs Eyre was destroyed by fire. A bucket brigade saved nearly all the furniture and effects, including a valuable collection of oil paintings, but was unable to save the building. A defective cooking range was thought to have started the fire.

The oil paintings were the work of Jane Eyre, sister to Alfred and Harry, who was by then a well-known Auckland-based artist, teacher, painter, sculptor and enameller. Among her paintings was one which depicted the place where Captain Cook landed at Mercury Bay, showing the spot where he first took observations of the transit of Mercury. Another portrayed the scene where HMS Buffalo was wrecked, showing all the principal points connected with the wreck - the rock on which the ship struck, Buffalo Beach and the remains of the Buffalo after more than 60 years of buffeting by wind and weather.

Fire had also featured in the Eyres’ lives a year earlier when another blaze destroyed a house at Whitianga owned by the family. The Roddas family, who occupied the house and were all in bed, had a narrow escape. The fire was suspected to have originated in an oil heater which had been left alight in the kitchen to keep some food hot for a sick child.

Alfred and Harry Eyre are very likely buried at Mercury Bay Cemetery, their parents also. Frederick Hampton Eyre, the family patriarch, died in 1908 aged 74. He had been connected with timber mills all his life. Within two years, his widow, Margaret also died aged 68. The Eyre family are remembered in the street bearing their name in Whitianga.  

Thanks to the Mercury Bay Museum for assistance with this article.

Pictured: A portrait of Jane Eyre by Girolamo Pieri Nerli (circa 1895).

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The Mercury Bay Informer is a highly popular community newspaper, based in Whitianga. The paper is distributed throughout the Coromandel Peninsula, coast to coast from Thames to north of Colville.