Gilfillan Masacre - The Truth About The Masacre
I found this rather disturbing article researching my family tree. I was led to this as my GGG maternal Grandfather, Henry Nathan helped track down and arrest the murderers. His wife Jane (Hearn) also helped by dressing the wounds of the injured. It also seems that Henry and Jane's daughter, Jane was taken by the Maoris and returned some years later. This article is taken from the Wanganui Herald, 6th January, 1888 written by Sarah Gilfillan, via paperspast site by National Library of New Zealand.
"There are few in Wanganui who have not heard of the atrocious murder that was committed at the residence of Mr Gilfillan in the Matarawa Valley, near Wanganui, on the 18th April, 1847. Among the old settlers there is yet a vivid recollection left of the feeling this horrible event caused and the subject never mentioned without a shudder. We have recently had handed to us the following account of the affair which, serves to clear up several points as to the reason why Mr Gilfillan acted as he did, and further helps us now-a-days to realise the terrible experiences that were undergone on the fearful night 40 years ago. As Miss Gilfillan says "events of that nature are not easily affaced from the memory" and we are confident that this account though written by one who was then only 6 years of age gives a vivid and true description of what actually took place. The following is Miss Gilfillan's story in her own words.
WHY THIS IS WRITTEN
It has lately come to my knowledge that a very false and cruel impression is abroad concerning the part acted by my father in that terrible affair. I happened, only a few days ago, to see an account of it, written by an army chaplain, which purports to give all the details. These details are, almost all, completely false - a perfect romance, in fact, with a running commentary through on the conduct of my father. It may be wondered where he gained his information when I state that the only persons in whose power it could have been to give it were two children of six and seven years of age respectively, and an older girl, who was then lying apparently at the ??? of death. She had received a crushing wound on the forehead with a blunt billhook, and had it not been for her youth, and the skill and kindness of Dr George Rees, his wife and other friends, who helped to nurse her, she could not possibly have survived. She lay for some three months - as it were, hovering between life and death and has never completely recovered from the effects of the wound.
As to the double-barrelled gun, the obsession of which the reverend romancer makes such a point of, it is true such a gun was in the house buy only a day or two previously my father had discovered that it was rusty, and therefore unfit for use for the time being. Unfortunately he did not at once put it in order, which undoubtedly should not have been the case, but which of us always does the right thing at the right time? His excuse must be that there did not appear to be any immediate danger, and that he, being the only man on the place to do anything which required the strength or intelligence of a full grown man, found little enough time to do all that seemed to be necessary. His was an energetic, I say nature, and such a person seldom have to complain of too much leisure. My eldest brother was a mere child in years, and not at all a strong one, one of my sisters being the person generally sent to help my father when she could be apared from the house, she always preferring outdoor work to any that kept her within doors.
He accuses my father of coolly and deliberately removing himself out of danger, and knowingly leaving his wife and children to be murdered, in spit of my mothers urgent entreaties that he would not leave her. This is directly contrary to the truth. He admits that my father said so, but takes the liberty of doubting his word. From these premises he builds up a very moving yet totally inaccurate account of what afterwards happened. As regards the agonised screams so graphically introduced in his account, as a matter of fact none were uttered, except one, and that certainly not a very loud one, and that certainly not, which I shall mention in its proper place. As I was the very last to escape from the house before my poor, devoted mother herself fled, I am able with perfect certainty to vouch for the truth of all I shall relate.
I was only a few weeks past my sixth birthday at the time, but the recollection of what happened on that awful night is perfectly distinct and vivid in my mind. Events of that nature are not easily effaced from the memory, and in order to clear my dead fathers memory from such unjust and cruel imputations, I think it right to send abroad a correct account of the case for the benefit of such as have only heard false ones.
I have no doubt my father would have acted differently had he known what was going to happen. It is very easy, after a thing is over, to say what would have been the right course to pursued, but not always so easy to do the right thing before the time passes at which it would be of any avail. It must also be remembered that my father was the first to be wounded, and that so severely across the back of the head, that he was obliged to creep on his hands and knees instead of walking upright. I have in after years, many times seen and felt the scar which was across the base of the scull ??? Nearly from ear to ear. The boys of whose youth this army chaplain makes so much, were full grown men, though young, and there were six of them, one of the six was, I believe, a lad of about fifteen years of age. The other five were some years older.
THE PRELUDE TO THE TRAGEDY
The evening of Sunday, the 18th of April, 1847, was fine and clear after a fine sunny day. I should judge by the lights in this present month of April, in which I write, that the time was about six oclock or a little later. Some clothes were out on the grass, having been left out to bleach. My father came into the house and addressing my mother, said - Mary, you had better send one of the children to fetch in those clothes, for I see a whole mob of Maoris coming down the hill. This was immediately done.
THE AGES OF THOSE PRESENT
Before proceeding any further, I had better give the names and ages of all the members of our family who were in the house at the time. My eldest sister was married, and was living in town. Her only child, an infant of ten months old, was with us on a visit, and was not killed that night. In the morning he was found asleep in the fern where he must have crawled when dropped by Frank, in whose charge he was. He died about two months later in the house of his parents.
The members of the family were as follow - My mother, aged about forty, killed; Mary, nearly sixteen, wounded; Eliza just fourteen, killed; Frank eleven and a half, killed; John, seven and a half, escaped unhurt; Sarah, just six, escaped unhurt; Adam, three and a half, killed; Agnes; nearly four months died in town a few months afterwards; Alexander Allison; Died in town two months afterwards.
THE FIRST ASSAULT
The clothes having been brought in, my father went out to meet the Maoris, and talk to them outside. He was smoking his pipe; some of the natives were also smoking. My brother John went with him, but all the rest of us stayed in the house with my mother. She may have desired to do so, I do not remember. I was watching at the window, and saw everything that went on outside. My father was walking up and down sailor fashion, which was always a habit of his. John was behind him, walking up and down at his elbow. My father and the Maoris were talking quite amicably, without any appearance of ill-feeling, when suddenly, as his back was turned in his walk, one of them struck him on the back of the head with a long handled tomahawk. He immediately staggered round the house to the door, which was opened by my mother to let him in, and immediately re-closed, thus shutting out John, who was close behind. He called out, when my mother let him in and refastened the door. The blood was streaming from my fathers head. My mother bound it up, and wrapped up his neck very thickly to stanch the bleeding. Over all I remember seeing her wrap a sky-blue pelisse belonging to the baty.
WHY HE LEFT
While doing this, she continued to urge him to go away, as she felt sure it was only he who was wanted and that the Maoris did not intent to harm anyone else. At this time, I think no women or children had been harmed by the natives. At last her entreaties prevailed, ask she let him out quietly, it was then dark.
A BRAVE MOTHER
I cannot tell you how soon it was after this, but I think, but I think it was not many minutes, when my mother told us all to go to a bedroom at the other end of the house. We were all crowding through the doorway, when I, who was looking behind me as I went, saw a long handled tomahawk uplifted and brought down on the window, the glass of which I heard falling on the floor. I suppose my mother must have fastened the inner door, through which had escaped, for we were not followed. I only know that she was behind us all the time, and was the last to go through the doorway. The room to which we retreated was a small one, with a bed on each side; leaving a narrow passage at the end of which was a window between the beds. My mother redirected each of us where to go under one of other of the beds; she standing up in the middle of the room. The house was a clay one, and , while we were hiding we three little ones who were under the bed that stood against the outside wall, had to shift our positions, in consequence of a piece of wood which had been thrust through the clay wall. My sister Mary was the first to be sent out through the window, my mother handing after her, her own baby, little Agnes. After a short interval, during which my mother watched at the window, Eliza was put out, having in her charge my brother Adam. Then after another interval, Frank with Alexander Allison, our little nephew, to take care of. My mother watched the whole time and never, by word or sign, let us suppose that she saw or heard anything which might cause us to feel any additional alarm, although to judge from the position in which the bodies were found, she must have seen everything that went on as well as the darkness permitted. While she was thus watching, and we were peering out from under the bed, I saw a Maoris appear at the window holding in his hand a lighted stick which he thrust almost into my mothers face, uttering at the same time a word in his own language, which I think I remember correctly, but do not know the meaning of. She gave a slight scream and started back. I have since thought that this fire stick was probably thrust in to light the room and show how many of us still remained in it. After Frank and Alexander, John was put out, and then shortly afterwards myself. We were lifted gently over the window sill, a low one and deposited with our feet on the ground. It was quite dark only a few stars, and the light from the other side of the house, which had been set on fire. This was the portion we had first escaped from and where a fire had been left burning on the hearth. They were evidently hiding round the corner nearest of the window from which we had escaped. On going few steps from the window I felt myself struck on the right shoulder with some wooden weapon, which knocked me into the drain. This, no doubt, gave my assailant the idea that he had killed me for he appears not to have seen that I instantly clambered out of the ditch and ran away, as it proved in the right direction to ensure my safety. At the gate I met my brother John, who had had the wit to jump into the ditch and run along it, as he afterwards told me. He had very dark hair, and wore dark clothes, which most likely were the two points very much in his favour. Just after meeting him I heard a scream and, looking round, saw the light coloured of my mother moving quickly, she was evidently running. We were so frightened that we caught hold of one anothers hands and ran round the end of a hill near us. We climbed some distance up the side of this hill, and then lay down in the fern, where we remained till the morning, of course wide awake, and fancying that every little sound we heard was caused by the feet of someone coming to kill us. We lay close together hand in hand afraid to speak above a whisper.
When daylight came, my brother said he knew the way to town, and would take me there, so after some consultation we started, still hand in hand. At the foot of the hill, we came upon my sister Mary, sitting near the edge of the swamp with her little baby still in her lap; both were literally covered in blood - a ghastly sight. We said we were going to town and asked to come with us. She only shook her head, being unable to speak. She afterwards told us, that, afte3r we left her she managed to rise to her feet, and still holding the baby, managed to make her way back to the house. Here she came upon the corpses of my mother, Eliza, and Adam, she fainted, and knew no more till after the arrival of the relief party from town. The body of poor Frank was more to the right. The poor boy had evidently run in the wrong direction, and had thereby made himself visible against the sky. John and I were afraid to go near the house, and travelled on towards the town. There was not even a track through the fern to guide us, but we met under some trees a party of settlers on foot with one on horseback carrying a sack, These trees, I have since been told were in a spot known as the Round Bushes. The horseman, Mr Bell, produced from his sack a loaf of bread, a bottle, and a pancikin. He gave us a large slice bread and a drink of milk. The party then went on, leaving us with friendly Maoris, who carried us on their backs, to the mission station at Putiki, where we were kindly taken care of by Mrs Taylor and her family till other arrangements were made.
The Rev Richard Taylor told me many years later, that the Maori who carried me was John Williams, who afterwards paid a visit to England, and was, I think presented to the Queen. My father was attended by the military surgeon, Dr Philson, now in Auckland I think. My sister was taken kind care of at the house of Dr G Rees, and owes her life under Heavens to his skill and attention, and to the many friends who so kindly took turns in watching by her bedside during the night. She is still alive, being the only left besides myself of all those who were concerned in that terrible event.
As corroborative evidence of the truth of the story thus told by Sarah Gilfillan, we have also the following in the handwriting of Mary Gilfillan, the sister who though so seriously injured, still carefully tented her infant sister, a heroine if ever colonial history produced one. You (Sarah) and John saw all that happened out of doors. I saw mother binding fathers head. I was sitting in the kitchen close to the window feeding the elder baby when mother almost threw the little one into my arms, as father rushed in. Mother begged him earnestly to save himself. As I neither saw or heard distinctly. I did not exactly what had taken place outside. The Maoris slashed in the window with a tomahawk, as I have good reason to know, for the same tomahawk came dangerously close near to my right shoulder. Mother called to me to run, which I did, with the two babies, and rushed under Elizas bed. In the meantime Agnes fell asleep, and as Alexander continued to fret, I asked Eliza to take him, which she did; the little one being still asleep, and not stirring even when I received my blow. This is all I can think of at present, except that Maori boy who was standing close to me aimed his hatchet at Frank, who gave a fearful scream, and as I thought ran away. I saw no more, for almost at the same moment I was struck myself.