Heathens at the Battle of Waireka 1860

Graeme Kenyon from New Zealand has been in touch recently about the involvement of a couple of Heath Old Boys and others from Halifax in the Battle of Waireka between settlers and local Maoris which took place on .

James Hirst entered the school in 1843 and Robert Chisenhall Hammerton in 1848; we do not know when either of them left but the family of Holden Hammerton left Halifax in 1854 to settle in New Plymouth. By 1860, they were both living in New Plymouth and volunteered for the Taranaki Volunteer Rifles. A month after the battle, James wrote a letter to his family in Halifax which they shared with the Halifax Guardian who published it on . Other former Halifax residents involved in the events surrounding the battle include John Kenyon, Francis Ullathorn Gledhill and Thomas Gledhill.

The letter has been included in Graeme Kenyon’s book The Battle of Waireka 1860: an anthology of first hand accounts published by Lone Gull, Auckland 2018 which was launched on at the Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth.

Graeme suggests that, as the letter was written a month after the battle, it has probably been contaminated by what he heard from others and by overestimates of the number of casualties.

But it still provides a unique viewpoint because Hirst and his volunteers first ascended a knoll to the left with the Taranaki Militia (see these photographs of the site today) and then left them to cross a gulley to a position occupied by Harry Atkinson, another officer of the Taranaki Volunteer Rifles, who also provided an account of the battle.

Taranaki, April 29th, 1860

My Dear William, — I have not written to you for some time, and I had almost given up the idea of writing, as I never receive any letters, but mamma made me promise to write to you a full account of the recent battle of Waireka, fought on the . Well, my station is at the Hua block-house, with Lieutenant Morrison and 50 men, but I was invalided into town for a few days.

While I was in town a messenger came in from Omata, with intelligence that five men and boys had been murdered by the natives. Omata, you must know, is about five miles south, and the Hua about the same distance north, of the town. The messenger also brought word that the Rev. Brown, with his own and five other families, were cut off by the enemy. You can imagine better than I can describe, the excitement that pervaded the town, when the news came in of their disasters. People who lived a short distance out of town, and who had considered themselves safe, came in town as quickly as they could, carrying bedding and things with them. Mr. Devenish [brother-in-law of the writer] had gone out to his farm and had not returned at dusk, and what made matters worse, news came that a number of the enemy had been seen on the road leading out there. Mary was in a very precarious state of health at the time, so I told Annie to stay, and if possible prevent anyone coming to alarm her, and I took my sword and revolver and went out on the road to meet Mr. D., I should say, I crawled on the road. I had got about a mile and a half when I heard a noise in front of me, and stooping down, saw two men in front, armed with guns. I got under cover, and waited till they got near enough, when I covered one with my revolver and challenged them. The answer was “friend” and I found them to be two men who were looking for their brother, who was with Devenish. The three of us went on together till we met the party, and returned safe to town.

The next day at noon, or rather at 11 a.m., volunteers were called for to go and fetch in the missing families from Omata. The whole of our company, with the exception of three or four, stepped out, and about 30 or 40 of the militia. We were then sent home to get some dinner, and mustered at about 12. The governor made a short speech to us, and we cheered him lustily. Soon after this we started, and as Capt. Watt stayed in town I had command of his company,1 and I assure you I was not a little proud of it. Anyway we went by the beach, 100 of the 65th going the inland road, accompanied by about twenty or twenty five seamen and marines of the H.M.S. Niger.

We marched about two and a half miles at a good smart pace, when we saw the enemy’s scouts on a hill in front of us. We still marched on, and I told my company to remember the murdered men (one of them was a volunteer), and take no prisoners. They all yelled out “no quarter.” Shortly after this we halted, and advanced again in skirmishing order. We had to scale some cliffs, so steep that the men had to catch the scrub and flax, and pull themselves up by it. We got up and reformed, when No. 2 Rifles under Captain H. Atkinson, went to their front, and No. 1, under me, took to the left front, the militia, under Captain Brown, being in the rear as a reserve, Captain Stapp having command of the whole. Lieut C. Hammerton was at first with me, but afterwards joined No. 1. I held my first position some little time, but seeing No. 1 almost overpowered, I went with my company and joined them, leaving the militia to hold the position which I first took. I was only just in time, as the enemy were pouring in shot like hail; but when the two companies were united we drove the enemy back with tidy slaughter.

I found Lieut. C. Hammerton badly wounded, a bullet having gone clean through his thigh just above the knee, as he was rallying a few men to fetch in a wounded comrade. At this time there were three men of ours wounded, Hammerton, Rawson (son of Dr. Rawson), through the thigh smashing the bone, and Inch, in the breast. The last named, a splendid shot, before he was wounded killed one, and afterwards killed or wounded two other natives.

The wounded were under cover of an oat stack, which protected them from the fire of an enemy. About this time, or something like an hour after the action commenced, the 65th, with a rocket tube, came in sight of us to our extreme left, and, although they did not do much fighting, caused a diversion in our favour.

The naval brigade, under Lieut. Blake, took the position that I first held, and it was there that Blake fell, seriously wounded; a sergeant of militia was also killed about the same time. After this had gone on till the sun was going down, to our extreme surprise and disgust we saw the troops marching off to town at a smart pace, with the exception of a corporal and eight men, who joined us and remained with us to the end of the battle. Four men of the naval brigade also joined us. One was afterward mortally wounded, and died the same night. At this time we had a good number of our men wounded, but none killed, and only one dangerously. We could not believe that the troops had really left us for some time, and had no means of ascertaining, as when the soldiers retired the enemy took possession of their position and completely cut off our communication with the town; and what made matters worse, we had no doctor, and were almost out of ammunition.

We have since ascertained that there were about 550 of the enemy, against which we had about 100 rifles and 40 militia. I assure you it was a trying time for all of us. We moved our wounded into a house, and pulled up turnips, cabbages &c., out of the garden, and built a wall around them to protect them from any shot which might penetrate the walls of the house. When I could spare a minute I spent it with C. Hammerton. I took him some water but the hero would not drink till he knew the other wounded had had some. He told me to fight hard for the honour of Heath school, as we were both from there; and as we expected to be all killed, I promised to be with him if possible when the tomahawk was to do its work. By this time it had got quite dark, and the natives kept up a very smart fire on our position; but thanks to God and our breastworks, composed of sheaves of oats (of which there was a stack close to us), we kept them back.

At about 6 p.m. Captain Cracroft, of the Niger, and about 25 sailors, or 50, I do not know which, and six or seven militia or rifles, stormed the pah around which the enemy were posted, and though we did not know it till we reached the town, yet I believe that so frightened were the natives that they lost heart altogether.

About 8 p.m. we held a council of war, and determined when the moon had set to march on the Omata Stockade, about 1½ miles from us on the road to town. I must tell you that the country where we were was of a very ugly nature, full of ravines with swamps at the bottom, and the sides covered with flax and scrub, affording good cover for an ambuscade. The order of march was to send the men two and two, at about six paces between each couple, and every now and then the litter with the wounded, all in complete silence, and those men who had white trousers daubed them all over with mud, so that we should not be seen. I was the last man to leave, and I assure you I shall never forget it.

As we moved very slowly I had the opportunity of examining the line of march, and saw several of the enemy lying dead by the side of the road.

We reached the stockade without any interruptions whatever, at about half past nine, all safe so far. We halted there about three quarters of an hour and had something to eat and drink, and a rest; and then on to town, which we reached soon after midnight. Just before we got into town we met a force on the march to our assistance, which of course turned back. The scene in town baffles all description. When the troops had returned to town without us, excitement was fearful, and soon afterwards a man rode in (who had tried to join us but could not) with the sad news that our gallant little band would all be killed unless assistance reached us soon. When we came near our outlying picket, we were challenged, and when the guard knew it was us there was a hearty cheer, or a succession of cheers, which was heard in town. When we got in, the square was filled with women waiting for us, and then began such a scene of kissing, hugging &c., as I never saw before. I had my sword in my hand and a rifle, which I had got from one of the wounded in the other. You may be sure I came in for my share of the kissing, and then there was, “Where is my husband?” or “where is my son?” or “did my John do his duty?” and a whole host of such questions to answer, and the invitations to all sorts of nice suppers, &c. I could give you a host of instances of individual daring, but time presses. One man of ours shot 6, another 5; in fact the loss on the side of the enemy was at least 100, including their head chief and others. Our loss was — killed: 1 militia, died of wounds, 1 marine; wounded: 1 soldier, Lieutenant Blake and four seamen, 1 militia Lieutenant Hammerton and 5 Rifles.

So you see the stuff volunteers are made of. I will say no more of myself than that the bullets were all around me; but I was not touched, and we were in action about 5½ hours, and under fire all that time. Mamma and papa will give you a more particular account when they arrive, and I will conclude by saying that I stand high with my comrades and am satisfied with myself. Give my love to all enquiring friends. Perhaps I shall write you another sheet tomorrow; and so goodbye.

I have the honour &c.
JAMES HIRST, 1st Lieutenant Taranaki Volunteer Rifles.