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Published: February 25th 2010
James Collins was 37 when he died when the passenger steamer Penguin struck a rock in Cook Strait. A total of 75 people lost their lives.
Fossicking in old graveyards may seem a strange thing to do. I’m sure the Beast of Burden thinks so, and he may even consider it a ghoulish habit I’ve acquired as once again, I leave him at the gate and head off with notebook and camera.
A Window On The Past
But I prefer to see it as looking through a window into our past. Often the glimpse we get is tantalizing short on detail - leaving it up to our imaginations to fill in what’s missing from the picture.
Gold Rush Town
It felt like that when I visited the little Catholic cemetery at Charleston, a West Coast town that was the centre of a gold rush for three years in the 1860s.
Many of the headstones carry Irish names such as Maloney, Henigan and Collins and described them as natives of County Clare or Kerry. And they died tragically - a landslip here, a shipwreck there, or as children. Their deaths often seemed sudden and violent, but their headstones provided insufficient light to put detail into the shadows.
Token of Affection
This is the grave of Mary Ellen Quinn, an assistant teacher who was in her 19th year. No cause of death, but the children of Charleston's schools had this to say:"Your last loving words ring still in our ears/crushed us with grief, moved us to tears/The last lingring (sic) blessing from that now icy hand/May it rest with us ever til with God we shall stand.
One headstone in particular caught my attention. It marks the grave of James Collins, who drowned early last century at the age of 37 when a vessel called the Penguin foundered.
I’d never heard of the Penguin, but I was intrigued. So when I reached Greymouth I went into the History House Museum and within minutes the kind woman behind the counter produced a heavy book called “New Zealand Shipwrecks”
and ran her finger down the pages.
Light In The Shadows
Sure enough, there was the Penguin. It was a passenger steamer which struck a rock in Cook Strait and went down with the loss of 75 lives. Thirty people survived.
The book states matter of factly, “the conduct of everybody, from the time the ship struck until she sank, was a magnificent display of heroism.”
So that helped fill in some of the detail glimpsed through that particular window. But I’m still puzzled about one thing.
A Year Out "New Zealand Shipwrecks"
says the tragedy happened on February 12, 1909, but my notes taken directly off the headstone say Collins died a
"Repent In Time"
Patrick O'Brien, a native of Co. Waterford, was 37 when he was killed in a landslip in 1888.
"Death to him short warning gave,
Therefore be careful how you live,
Repent in time and don't delay,
For he was quickly called away."
year earlier on February 12, 1908. My first thought was that I’d made a mistake copying down the date, so I checked the photo I’d taken. It definitely shows 1908, so either the book is wrong, or the dead man’s family didn’t know which year it was - an unlikely possibility.
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