FATAL FIRE & EXPLOSION at Upper Hutt - 1914 :: FamilyTreeCircles.com Genealogy
<< Previous - Next >>

FATAL FIRE & EXPLOSION at Upper Hutt - 1914

Journal by ngairedith

... from Evening Post, 30 March 1914

SIX LIVES LOST (8 at final count)

... Shortly after midnight on Saturday (28 March) at the township of Upper Hutt a tragic calamity occurred. A small store occupied by Messrs (Herbert) Benge and Pratt, was discovered to be on fire just before midnight, and in the interval before the fire hose could be secured a band of helpers, including many local residents and railwaymen, entered the burning building and endeavoured to save as much of the stock as possible. While they were thus engaged inside and just outside the store a terrific explosion occurred inside, and completely wrecked the whole premises. Four men were killed outright, one died soon afterwards, and a sixth man succumbed to his injuries shortly after reaching Wellington Hospital early on Sunday morning.
Several others were more or less severely injured with the flying debris and burning timber, and, after being attended by a number of doctors, who, hurriedly summoned, were quickly on the scene, were conveyed by special train in record time to Wellington, where they were received in the Hospital.
The less seriously injured had their injuries tended, and were able to get back to their homes. Many people had miraculous escapes in the fatal rain of flying debris, which spread havoc among all the surrounding property. The windows in the adjoining buildings, the Provincial Hotel, and in the Post Office across the main road, and in dwelling houses and shops much further away were shattered to fragments by the force of the explosion. The explosion was heard at Kaiwarra, nearly twenty miles away, while at the Lower Hutt and Petone it is stated that the ground shook perceptibly. In the Upper Hutt itself the force of the explosion was so great that windows were broken half a mile away from the fire.

After the explosion, the fire consumed the wreckage, and assailed and gutted the next building ? a drapery store. It was finally suppressed, early in the morning, after the worst was done, by a party of fire-fighters, with one lead of hose.

* listed here in alphabetical order for easier finding
* names spelt as written in the paper
* news reports of the tragedy that month were numerous so I have taken relevent info from each and added here
* some injury reports were very graphic (in today's standards). I have added links so you can choose to read or not

? James COMESKY, 57 years of age, Postmaster at Upper Hutt
... James Comesky, the postmaster, as soon as he saw the fire, went to the office of Edwards, a carrier, whose stables were at the corner of the burning store, with a laudable zeal to save Government property, and was trying to remove the telephone and get it away. He was doing this when the explosion occurred, and he was found later in the street, with a heavy window sash on him, and portion of the wall on top of this. Signalman WOLTERS ran forward and tried to release the imprisoned man, but the task was beyond him. The heat was suffocating and the wreckage too firmly jammed. The hose was then quickly played on the spot for some time and then a band of resucers ran forward and the unfortunate postmaster was at length released. He was carried to the adjacent billiard saloon, which served as a temporary hospital, where he received first aid attention prior to his removal to the special train for the hospital which he was fated never to reach, for he died beofre the train left.
Mr Comesky had been in charge of the Upper Hutt post office for about two years. He ws 57 years of age and leaves a widow and grown-up family of seven
JAMES COMESKEY (1857-1914) was 57
- he joined the Post and Telegraph Department as a telegraphist in Auckland two days before Christmas, 1884. Prior to that date he served twelve years in the Postal Service of the United Kingdom. In 1901 he was appointed Postmaster at Ohaeawai, Bay of Islands, and in 1909 he became postmaster at Upper Hutt. He was a well-known bowler. He has left a widow and several children most of whom are grown up
- James married Sarah Ann ?
- their known children: (not verified)
1885 - 1943 Patrick Bernard Comeskey
1886 - 1887 Mary Josephine Comeskey
- Mary aged 3 months & buried Waikumete, Auckland
1888 - ? Hubert Augustine Comeskey
1889 - ? Winifred Vera Margaret Comeskey
1893 - 1916 Peter Leo Cuthbert Comeskey KILLED IN ACTION, Somme, France
1894 - 1968 Una Martha Comeskey
1895 - 1918 James Gerald Comeskey DIED in FRANCE 1918 WWI
1897 - 1975 Daniel Augustine Comeskey
1899 - 1951 Kathleen Mary Comeskey
- Sarah Jane returned to Auckland about 1916

? William FLYNN, aged 35 years, railway guard
... William Flynn, the guard of the midnight up-train, which had just arrived from Wellington, and G. Taylor, junr., a porter of the station, had just arrived on the scene when the explosion accurred and were apparently both at work on the footpath in front of the store. Flynn was buried beneath the debris of the collapsed verandah ... also see notes
Guard Flynn was about 35 years of age, and leaves a widow
WILLIAM DANIEL FLYNN (1879-1914) was 35
- born in Dunedin
- body identified by Joseph MORRIN, dairy farmer from Hawkes Bay
- William was stationed at Upper Hutt. For the last seven years he had been engaged on trains in the Lambton-Upper Hutt service and was well known by constant suburban travellers. He was married and leaves a wife and five step-sons
- William married Agnes CLAUSEN (nee MORAN 1878-?) in 1909. Daughter of James MORAN & Mary Ann CASSIDY, Agnes had previously been married to Christopher Henry Clausen (1867-1897) in 1891

? Denis MAHONEY, aged about 38, in charge of the Upper Hutt Police Station
... The fire was discovered by Constable Mahoney about 11.45 p.m., and the partners of the firm were notified and people in the adjoining premises awakened. Constbale Mahoney and others began to remove the goods from the shop. This was continued for some minutes, till fears were expressed that the building would collapse and bury the men working inside. Constable Mahoney said he would go in and "get the boys out". He is said to have brought out two men named Scott and Vivian and entered the store a third time. Just as the constable had entered the door a terrific explosion occurred, completely wrecking the store, and seriously damaging neighbouring buildings. The post office clock stopped at nine minutes past twelve. The force of the expolsion is indicated by the fact that big pieces of timber were thrown a chain away. After the loss of Constable MAHONEY in the ruins of the store Sergeant O?HALLORAN was summoned at once from Wellington, and came up post haste by motor, bringing with him Constable MELVILLE of Wellington, and Constable MEIKLEJOHN of Petone. Sergeant O?HALLORAN was busy right through the whole of yesterday looking after details connected with the fire.
Constable Mahoney's body was only recognised by means of his handcuffs. He was about forty years of age and leaves a widow and three young children. He had been about five years at the Upper Hutt
DENIS MAHONEY (1873-1914) was 41
- he was one of the best known figures in the community. He was attendant at all public functions in the township during the last nine years. He was born in Ireland and on coming out to New Zealand he engaged in mining in Waihi and Karanagahake. Fifteen years ago he joined the Police Force. He was a fine stamp of a man, and a noted athlete. He was an adept wrestler and a heavyweight lifter. He was first stationed at Lambton-quay and later was transferred to Woodville. In 1905 he was placed in charge of Upper Hutt. He left a wife and three young children.
(Denis possibly married Hilda FIELD in 1906)

? George William TAYLOR, 19 years of age, railway porter at Upper Hutt
... Taylor, was aged 21 and was employed at the Hutt. He was standing on a balcony at the corner of the Provincial Hotel, next to the fire. The force of the explosion blew him back on the verandah and he was badly injured, dying after admission to the hospital ... also see notes
GEORGE WILLIAM TAYLOR (1894-1914) was 19.10
- he had joined the Railway Department two years previously
- son of George Joseph TAYLOR & Isabella SUTHERLAND
- the children of George & Isabella:
1894 - 1914 George William Taylor
1896 - 1979 Emily Margaret Taylor
1898 - 1948 Arthur Frederick Taylor
1901 - 1990 Isabella Charlotte Taylor

? Michael John TOOHEY, aged about 29 years, bridge contractor
... Mr Toohey was standing on the balcony at the corner of the Provincial Hotel next to the fire. He was playing a small garden hose on the roof of the burning building. The proprietor, Mr Crabtree was with him. The boarders in the hotel were up and preparing to get out with their belongings. The force of the explosion blew him back on the verandah, and he was badly injured, dying after admission to the hospital. Mr Crabtree, licensee of the hotel, was thrown to the ground, but escaped unhurt. The hotel (next door) was riddled, as if it had been shelled by a field gun and only the walls remain. Every window in the neighbourhood was completely smashed
Toohey was about 28, and was employed by the Maymorn Estate sawmilling company and was a permanent boarder at Ernest Crabtree's Provincial Hotel. he was discovered by the hotel porter, Walter GALES. He lingered long enough to reach the Wellington hospital where he died about 3 o'clock next morning
MICHAEL JOHN TOOHEY (1875-1914) was 39
- he was born in Tasmania and was employed in sawmills in that country before coming to New Zealand. He was a fine axeman

? John Wesley VIVIAN, aged about 35 years, Storeman in BENGE?s store
... J. W. Vivian was found lying dead on the ground. Just how he met his death is not known. Vivian was about 35, but no details of his family are known. The body of John Vivian, the store-keeper at Benge and Pratt's had been caught near the shop door and externally he did not appear to be badly injured. He did not rally, however, and passed away before the special train left
JOHN WESLEY VIVIAN (1879-1914) was 34
- born in Dunedin 7 July 1879, twin son of Francis VIVIAN & Sarah Ann McWHINNEY, their mother dying the day after their birth aged 19. His twin brother was Francis Vivian (1879-1960). His father remarried in 1885 to Rebecca Jane KIRKNESS (they are all buried in Lawrence, Otago)
- his body was identified by his father Francis Vivian, salesman of Lawrence, Otago who said his son was aged 34 and single
- he was a grocer's assistant, for some time in business for himself

The following were seriously injured and are present in Wellington Hospital: -
? James HAGAN, about 50 years of age, caretaker of Trentham Rifle Range
? Everard E. H. PELLING, 18 years of age, blacksmith?s assistant
- later died
? Virgil McGOVERN, about 25 years of age, a Dentist and a member of the Upper Hutt Town Board. On 31 March was reported as progressing favourably in Upper Hutt Hospital. On 9 April he was reported as less satisfactory and causing concern. On 13 April he was reported as in a very critical. On 17 April he was reported in Wellington Hospital as not wholly regained consciousness. On 27 April he was reported to have died during the night although an operation was performed. He was not married

Many others were less seriously injured, including the following: -
? Charles WALTERS, signalman at the Upper Hutt
... Walters was assisting to remove the drapery and was blown right across to the other side of the street
? Thomas COSTELLO, shunter at Upper Hutt
? R. F. STOREY, tablet porter at Upper Hutt
? S. H. WEAVER, engine driver and chairman of the local branch of the Locomotive Engine-Drivers and Firemen?s Association
? A. J. COLLETT, local chairman of Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants
? C. D. MORPETH, Accountant, Wellington

Besides those whose names are mentioned, a number of others suffered minor injuries from flying debris. The injured men were attended to as quickly as possibl, medical assistance being summoned from the Lower Hutt, and at 2 o'clock a specail train left for Wellington with the most serious cases


(Evening Post 31 March)
... The number of persons killed by the explosion at the fire at Messrs BENGE and PRATT?s shop at the Upper Hutt on Saturday night now amounts to seven. Yesterday afternoon at 4.45 o?clock,
? Everard E. H. PELLING, a young man 18 years of age, died at the Hospital, never having regained consciousness. Deceased who was a son of Mr E. H. PELLING of the Upper Hutt, received injuries to his head, which proved fatal.
- a son of Edward PELLING (1867-1918) & Lydia Sarah Ruth GEANGE (1872-1950)
- known children of Edward & Lydia:
1894 - 1970 Ruth Angus High Pelling
1895 - 1914 Evarard Edward Henry Pelling
1899 - 1977 Emma Satchell Pelling
1911 - 1995 Harold John Trentham Pelling

Dr MACLAURIN, Government Analyst, made an inspection of the ruins yesterday. He will be an important witness at the inquest so far as the cause of the explosion is concerned. Sergeant-Detective RAWLE is making enquiries on behalf of the police. The cause of the explosion is still unknown. The owners of the store say there were no explosives in the shop, which was, however, lit by acetylene gas. The acetylene gas generator supplying the shop lights at Benge and Pratt's was situated in a shed at the back and it is stated to have been in good order. The explosion simply wrecked the whole place

At a meeting of the Upper Hutt Town Board last evening, a resolution was adopted, the members standing ? expressing the deep sympathy of the townspeople and board with the relatives of those who had lost their lives or had been injured in Sunday?s catastrophe. The chairman announced he had opened a subscription list for the relief of the necessities of those requiring help and that he had convened a public meeting for Tuesday night in the local Town Hall.

Splendid work was done by the women of the township, who assisted in ministering to the injured. Several had knowledge of first aid and it proved useful.

The special train, which carried the wounded into town, was driven by W. GREY, with J. SKELTON as fireman, who had just brought in the 10.35 train from Wellington. The special was driven through to Wellington in under forty-five minutes ? a record for the distance ? which usually takes over an house. Dr KEMP travelled with the four injured men, who were conveyed by two ambulances to the Hospital.

On Sunday morning, Mr W. R. MORRIS (Secretary of the Post and Telegraph Department), Mr A. P. DRYDEN (Chief Postmaster) and Mr LAURENSON (a member of the Wellington Post Office staff) went to the Upper Hutt in connection with the restoration of the Post and Telegraph services. Soon after their arrival men were set to work to screw boards over the broken windows in the local Post Office and tidy up the premises, and Mr LAURENSON was placed in charge of the office pending the appointment of a successor to the late Mr COMESKY. Public business is being carried out there as usual today.

Among the many people who had narrow escapes was Mr J. HAZELWOOD, general storekeeper, whose place of business is directly to the north side of the demolished building, and whose drapery department was completely destroyed in the conflagration. Mr HAZELWOOD, at the time of the explosion took place, was nailing sheets of corrugated iron over his back windows, in an effort to prevent the encroachment of the flames on his premises. Presently there was a tremendous report, and he found himself in the midst of a tornado of flying timber, sheet-iron and debris. Some of the burning pieces were flung close on a hundred yards away to the rear of his premises. A man named BROAD, a clerk in the railway station, was helping to carry goods out of the shop, and finding the smoke and heat too much, went outside. He was just out of the door when the explosion occurred. He was unhurt. Another man named THOMAS was blown right across the street. and was unscathed. Several others had almost similar experiences. Hazelwood's grocery store, next foor, a brick building, was burnt out, only the walls being left. this was insured for ?900 (equivalent now to $258,850) in the Alliance Office, and the stock for ?1800 in the same office.

SUCCUMBS from INJURIES (Evening Post, 27 April)
... The tragic explosion at the Upper Hutt on the 29th March claimed its eighth victim
? Mr Virgil McGOVERN who died, as a result of his injuries, in the Wellington Hospital at ten minutes to 8 last evening. The deceased had been in a critical condition for the last fortnight, and the end was not altogether unexpected. Mr McGOVERN was one of the four who were brought down from the Upper Hutt in a special train to the Hospital, all very seriously injured. Michael TWOHEY died shortly after reaching the hospital, and Everard E. H. PELLING, the youth of eighteen, who was trapped with the late Mr J. COMESKEY in the ruins of EDWARDS?s office; part of the building shattered by the explosion, only survived a day and a half. The deceased, who had been picked up 60 feet away from the doorway of the wrecked store, sustained severe wounds from the flying debris. During the first week in hospital he seemed to make some progress towards recovery, but after that he gradually sank until the end came. Mr James HAGAN, the fourth man badly injured by the explosion and brought to the Hospital, is now on the way to recovery.
... Widespread regret and sorrow will be felt at the death of Mr McGOVERN, who was one of the most popular young men in the Hutt Valley. He was unmarried, a young man of twenty-five years of age, born at Kaitangata. Together with his parents he came to Wellington in 1896. His parents for a time kept the White Swan Hotel (70 Cuba Street, Wellington), but later removed to Taita, and afterwards to Kaiwarra, and then to Wallaceville. As a boy Virgil McGOVERN attended the Marist Brothers? school and received his higher education at St Patrick?s College. His kindly disposition made him a favourite with his fellow students. After leaving college, he went into the grain business for a while at Waimate, and later entered the professional ranks as dentist. Of recent years he was residing with his mother and sister (Ellen Frances Marion) at Upper Hutt, where on the 25th March, three days before the fatal explosion, he was elected a member of the Town Board. He was, unfortunately, never able to take his seat. The funeral takes place tomorrow morning.
VIRGIL FRANCIS McGOVERN (1889-1914) was 25
- a son of Francis Joseph 'Frank' McGOVERN (1857-1906) & Annie LAUGHLIN
- his father arrived from Ireland, in Lyttelton in 1878 and was for many years in Kaitangata, where he built the Club Hotel, and afterwards the first theatre. He was several times elected President of the Kaitangata Caledonian Society, sold his interests in 1894, and settled in Wellington. He kept the Taita Hotel for many years prior to becoming licensee of the White Swan and later the Trentham Hotel

James Comesky, Constable Denis Mahoney, William Flynn and Michael Toohey were interred in St Joseph's Upper Hutt with the full rites of the Catholic Church, the service being conducted by Archbishop Redwood, Very Rev Dean Regnault, Rev Father Daly (parish priest) and others of the clergy. There was a large muster of police under Superintendent Ellison and Inspector Hendry, as well as a contingent of railway men and the Hibernian Society, with a big gathering of the general public. At 10.10 a.m., a train conveying the large body of police, railwaymen and others drew into Upper Hutt, and immediately a procession was formed at the Courthouse, to procced to St Joseph's Church. A body of uniformed police led the way, consisting of thirty-eight constables and nine sergeants, in charge of Superintendent Ellison and Inspector Hendry. Then came twenty-four railwaymen in uniform, and the Lower Hutt branch of the Hibernian Society, of which Guard Flynn was a member. A group of postal officials came next, and then the four coffins. The whole town turned out, over a thousand persons formed in the procession, which stretched from the Courthouse to St Joseph's Church, a third of a mile, following the pall-bearers to the cemetery. Also among those present were the Hons H. D. Bell, A. L. Herdman, and W. Fraser. Messrs T. M. Wilford, M.P. for Hutt, J. P. Luke, Mayor of Wellington, R. Fletcher, Chairman of the Harbor Board and other representatives of public bodies. In the course of the service Father Daly paid a tribute to the characters of the men, and the manner in which they lost their lives when working for the good of others. Though they knew the risks they ran, there was no shrinking back. Father Daly also referred to the other three deceased - Vivian, Taylor and Pelling - saying he had known all as young men of great promise. At the graveside the Archibishop assured the relatives and friends of the dead that they would have the sympahty of their countrymen generally. The men had met their deaths while doing a work of neighbourly charity, honourable and useful careers being thus cut short. Their actions had been an example to all
* Denis Mahoney is buried Plot 7 at St Joseph's Cemetery
- his pall-bearers were four of his brothers
* William Daniel Flynn is buried Plot 9 at St Joseph's Cemetery
- his pall-bearers were Guards J. Martin, J, Brown, B. Elliott and F. Mitchell
* Michael John Toohey is buried Plot 11 at St Joseph's Cemetery
- his pall-bearers were his comrades from the May Morn Estate
* James Comeskey has unknown plot on database at St Joseph's Cemetery
- his pall-bearers were the Commissioners of the Town Board, Dr Kemp, and Messrs Webb, Benge, and ex commissoner Quinn

... In the afternoon John Wesley Vivian was interred at Taita. Rev J. McCaw (Presbyterian) conducting the service in the presence of a large gathering of mourners
* John Wesley Vivian is buried Plot ? at Taita Cemetery

... The Friends of the late William George Taylor are respectfully invited to attend his Funeral, which will leave his father's residence, Main-road, Upper Hutt, on Tuesday, 31st March, 1914, at 2.45 p.m., for the Wallaceville Churchyard
... The last sad event of the day was enacted at Wallaceville, where George Taylor, as a member of the Railway Battalion of No 7 Company, N.Z. Engineers and the Territorials, was accorded a military funeral with members of deceased's late company who provided a firing party and also members of No 8 Company of the same battalion. Captain KEENAN, Staff-Officer for Railways, was in command and a large number of relatives and friends were present. Rev Mr Usher (Presbyterian) officiating at the graveside
* George William Taylor is buried Plot 45 at Wallaceville
(with other family members)

... The late Everard Pelling, who died in the Hospital on Monday, as the result of injuries received when the explosion ccurred, will be accorded a military funeral to-day (1st April). He was a member of D Company, 5th Regiment. The funeral will leave his father's residence, main Road, Upper Hutt at 2 p.m. for the Trentham Churchyard
* Everard Edward Henry Pelling is buried Plot ? at Trentham

... Virgil died nearly a month after the explosion
* Virgil Francis McGovern is buried Plot 42 at St Joseph's Cemetery
- his father is buried in Plot 43 & a Michael McGovern (1837-1907) in Plot 44

* Flynn's & Taylor's injuries

* In the shop so far as can be ascertained:
Alan ANDERSON, Signalman, slight abrasions, quickly searched for survivors
A. C. COLLETT, railway man, leg injuries
Thomas COSTELLO, railway shunter, severely cut legs and sides
T. CROFT, blown out of the shop
*William FLYNN
Mr KEMP, stationmaster, next to Vivian but not a scratch
Constable MAHONEY
*Virgil McGOVERN, body was found 60 feet away from the shop
*Everard PELLING, fractured skull etc, found next to Comeskey
R. F. STOREY, relieving tablet porter, blown into the street, cuts and burns
J. TOOHILL, enginedriver, detained by his wife at the moment of explosion from re-entering the shop
*John Wesley VIVIAN
Charles WALTERS, Signalman, driven through the door, taking Anderson with him. Severe burns, returned to search
Herbert WEAVER, railway man, leg injuries
Norman WILLIAMS, blown right our of the shop
They were moving quickly about picking up goods and carrying them out or handing them to others to save them from the fire. There was a constant stream of the workers moving in and out of the building

* Upper Hutt in 1914 had just had a water supply service installed but did not possess a fire brigade. There was only one fire hose available. Fortunately there was no wind otherwise the town would have been gutted

* 30 March 1914
... The Friends of the late James Comesky, Dennis Mahoney, William Flynn and Michael Toohey are respectfully invited to attend their Funerals, which will leave the Upper Hutt Courthouse on Tuesday, 31st March, 1914, at 10.15 a.m., for St Joseph's Church. High Mass at 10.30
... The Members of the H.A.C.B Society , St Peter and Paul's Branch No 436, Lower Hutt, are requested to attend, in regala, the Funeral of our late Brother William Flynn, which will leave the Courthouse, Upper Hutt, To-morrow (Tuesday) at 10.15 a.m., for St Joseph's Church, Upper Hutt

* 1 April 1914 It is alleged that a boy named Albert F. COOPER, fifteen years of age and employed in the store by Messrs Benge and Pratt, said he knew of the presence of explosives in the building, and spoke about it to witnesses. The police are in possession of evidence to the effect that the boy Cooper, speaking before the explosion occurred to a number of women who were gathered under a shop verandah, said: "There will be a fine scatter when the powder goes off". One of the women asked, : Is there powder there?" and Cooper, it is stated, replied "Yes, there is a barrel."
Mr Pratt states that here might have been a pound or two of blasting powder in the bottom of one of the kegs, but he did not think there was more. There were two or three empty kegs that had contained blasting powder. His firm, he said, could not stock much of the explosive, because it was only kept for the convenience of customers who required it for blasting tree stumps, etc. The powder was stocked upstairs. No patent explosives were stocked and he was at a loss to account for the explosion which occurred. The firm had occupied the place for four years, and he considers it extremely unlikely that any explosives were left there by the previous occupiers

* 28 April 1914
... Verdict on the Inquest GELIGNITE or ACETYLENE?

* Full page report & photos as reported in NZ TRUTH

Scene at the churchyard
showing the floral tributes covering the graves of James Comesky, Michael Toohey, William Flynn and Constable Mahoney

by ngairedith Profile | Research | Contact | Subscribe | Block this user
on 2013-02-01 23:18:35

ngairedith has been a Family Tree Circles member since Feb 2008.

Do you know someone who can help? Share this:


by kingarthur123 on 2014-06-16 10:30:41

James Hagan was my grandfather, thank you for this article.

Register or Sign in to comment on this journal.