Monday, 29 August 2016

The Opening of the Dunedin to Invercargill Railway & New Zealand's First High Profile Railway Accident, 22nd January 1879


A Rogers "K" Class locomotive of the type used on the
inaugural Dunedin to Invercargill express, c.1880
Note the "balloon" spark arresting funnel.
[Source : Alexander Turnbull Library]

After recently featuring the first passenger train to run between Christchurch and Dunedin in September 1878 I then turned my attention to the railway line from Dunedin to Invercargill which opened for through traffic just a few months later on Wednesday, the 22nd January 1879. While the main line south of Dunedin would not be as challenging in regards to gradients or curvature the inaugural express would be, even now, remembered for a serious and avoidable accident which would mar the elaborately planned celebrations at Invercargill, thus becoming "New Zealand's first high-profile railway accident".

Handover of The Last Section

On Friday the 17th January 1879, Mr Ussher, the Resident Engineer, along with Mr Grant, the General Manager, made an inspection of the newly completed section of line between Balclutha and Clinton with a Fairlie engine and carriage prior to the formal handover from the contractors to the Railways Dept. the following day. Delays caused by poor weather had in fact caused the opening to be delayed from the 7th January so a large back-log of freight had by now built up which amply demonstrated the urgent need for this new through route.

Yankee "K" Class Locomotives

The 'Yankee" American built locomotives selected to work the inaugural express on the 22nd January,"which have lately arrived and been erected in the railway workshops" and which "have been working on the Christchurch section on trial, and have fully answered all expectations", were of the Rogers "K" Class (numbered between K92 and K97). The South Island Commissioner [General Manager] of Railways, Mr William Conyers, had ordered "eight express engines... from the Rogers Locomotive Works" and "six goods engines of the 'Consolidation' type from the Baldwin shops, both to be in readiness for the opening of the through main line from Christchurch to Dunedin and Invercargill".

Strenuous Efforts to Convert the Hon. Gentleman

The two "Yankee" locomotives, including one first class passenger car "for the accommodation of the party of Dunedin bowlers", were sent down from Christchurch on Sunday the 19th January. As the Attorney-General, the Hon. Mr Stout, availed himself of this opportunity to travel south "without loss of valuable time" he was accused by the "Morning Herald" of travelling on the Sabbath [a sacred day] with a consequent "exhibition of secularism" which was an affront to the working man "more especially as it affects their seven days food for six days work". Other papers were quick to point out that it was a special train and in fact conveyed not only a Director of the self same "Herald" newspaper but also "prominent members of the Presbyterian and other Churches". In fact, "The Otago Daily Times" reported, either humorously or sarcastically (as the case may be), that "strenuous efforts were made to convert the hon. gentleman by singing Moody and Sankey hymns most lustily during part of the journey".

A Tedious Two Days' Coach Journey

The afore-mentioned two engines would work the inaugural express and subsequent timetabled passenger expresses between Dunedin and Invercargill. The normal timetabled journey time for an "express" passenger train would be, taking into account the unfenced nature of part of the line, six and a half hours. This was still a great improvement on a "tedious two days' coach journey" traversing frequently boggy, pot-holed and unreliable country roads or "an almost equally unpleasant sea voyage".

"No Ladies Going"

The afore-mentioned Mr Conyers, cabled to the Mayor of Invercargill that he and other guests would commence their journey south from Christchurch at 8.40 am on the 21st January with an overnight stop in Dunedin. He further advised "No ladies going". Fully 500 invitations had been issued with many joining the train at points south. The distribution of tickets for the inaugural train had been in the hands of Mr Conyers, which drew criticism of "centralisation" from some quarters, including from Dunedin, as not even the Railways Engineer in Chief or the Public Works Dept. had had any say in who would be invited. But as "The Otago Daily Times" noted "of course everyone cannot be accommodated".


The Locomotive Driver and Fireman on the footplate
of unknown "K" Class Locomotive, c.1880
[Source : Alexander Turnbull Library]

Departure of the Inaugural Express from Dunedin

The inaugural express train, drawn by the two American locomotives and hauling fourteen large carriages and three brake vans, departed Dunedin at 10.20 am on Wednesday the 22nd January 1879. Brake vans were a necessity as the carriages themselves were totally unbraked. Arrival in Invercargill was, in hindsight, timed rather optimistically for 4.15 pm.

Besides the "popular" Mr Conyers, special guests on board included the Hons. Messrs William H. Reynolds (representing James Macandrew, Member of Parliament for Dunedin who was ill), the Hon. John Ballance and the Hon. Robert Stout (all representing the Cabinet) along with other (named) members of the Government Legislature, and the Mayors of Christchurch and Dunedin, with the train being under the charge of Mr Grant and Mr Armstrong.

Tokomairiri [Milton] was reached on time at 11.55 am where the Mayor and local dignitaries came on board to continue the journey south. Departure was timed for 12 noon but left slightly late at 12.09 pm, continuing through to Balclutha which was reached at 1 pm, being now 20 minutes behind schedule. Here 20 guests joined the train "including the leading men of that township".

The Seven Span "Blair Bridge"

Just prior to entering Balclutha township the railway passed the site of the old north Balclutha terminus then crossed the new and impressive 870 foot timber and iron truss "Blair Bridge" [named by the Minister of Public Works, the Hon. WJM Larnach, for the District Engineer Mr Blair] spanning the Clutha River. Seven spans of 120 feet each were supported on seven foot diameter cast iron cylinders filled with concrete and sunk to a depth of 70 to 80 feet with a 30 feet stone arch spanning the Kaitangata road at the eastern end of the bridge. The railway then travelled over the short one mile 22 chain extension into Balclutha, having been opened, along with the bridge, in January 1878.

With a reporter on board able to hand messages to the local telegraph offices en-route the news of the days events, which appeared in evening papers that same day, have an immediacy to them; "The weather is delightful and everyone is enjoying the trip".

A Most Unpleasant Jumping Sensation

Upon departure from Balclutha the line now began "a continual ascension" through the newly opened four mile "Toiro section" constructed with unemployed "day labour" under Inspector McMillan and then the 16 mile 22 chain "Clinton section" constructed by contractors Messrs Proudfoot and Mackay. Through these sections the line passes the remote wayside stations of Waitapeka, Toiro, Warepa, Kaihiku and Waiwera to Clinton, being now 65 miles and 42 chains distant from Invercargill. Despite a small section of line entering "Proudfoot's section... where a most unpleasant jumping sensation was experienced" the road through the newly laid section was found to run very smoothly. And, "At many of the wayside places settlers were congregated, waving handkerchiefs, &c."

Fate Would Play a Cruel Trick

"On account of our having to moderate the speed considerably" arrival at Clinton was now well past the envisaged arrival time of 1.30 pm. Approaching the station an arch had been erected with bunting suspended from many buildings in the township. While it had been intended that a special train convey the Mayor of Invercargill and Councillors to Clinton to meet the special express this plan was abandoned just a couple of days before. With hindsight, this turned out to be a wise move. Thus with few passengers to pick up departure was prompt and "good time was made between Clinton and Gore". But fate would now play a cruel trick on this auspicious occasion.

Invercargill Arrangements

The Town Council declared that Wednesday afternoon would be celebrated as a "half holiday" with flags flying. A parade of Voluntary Battalion members would take place at 3 pm to the Invercargill Railway Station to be in attendance in order to salute the arrival of the train "with a salvo of artillery". The members of the Demonstration Committee responsible for the arrangements would then be formally introduced to the official guests conveyed on the express. Thereupon the Garrison Band, with the Battalion lining the route, would lead the guests the short distance to The Athæneum Library in Dee Street where they would continue playing while the guests were being conveyed to their respective hotels.

Illuminated by Night

Invercargill would be "illuminated" in the evening, primarily by gas and featuring some some designs described as "very handsome and expensive", but also with the use of one of Messrs Proudfoot and McKay's [the Railway Contractors for the new section of line] electric lights at The Athæneum. Electricity would be generated by an engine supplied by The National Mortgage and Agency Company. The Fire Brigade, with 38 men, would lead a torchlight procession commencing at 10 o'clock sharp down Dee Street then up Tay Street, and if the torches held out, down Esk, Kelvin and Don Streets. The evening would also occasion "a railway employees' ball".

A "Fearful Strain" on Accommodation 

With so many guests arriving in Invercargill "including crowds of people from the country", the question of accommodation arose. "The Railway Demonstration Committee" asked members to do all they could as a "fearful strain" would be placed on hotel accommodation and even "shake-downs of the roughest style will be at a premium". Visitors would "be none the worse for providing themselves liberally with travelling rugs" as "the crush will occasion some discomfort".

"The Ladies are Indignant"

And there would be no skimping on good southern hospitality. "The Invitation and Banquet Committee" called for tenders for a substantial hot dinner catering to a minimum of 200 guests although a tender for a cold collation with hot soups and vegetables could also be submitted. Sufficient liquor would need to be provided for twelve toasts.

The Invercargill City Council, on behalf of the Mayor, sent out some 100 telegrams and an equal number of written invitations "to those gentlemen who are to be invited to the banquet" which would commence at 7 pm. This will no doubt account for the short but rather acerbic comment in one newspaper column, "The ladies are indignant". The banquet itself would take place in the new Sloans Theatre in Dee Street, and "the upper portion of the house will be reserved for ladies desiring to be present [ie, only to observe] and also for gentlemen holding banquet tickets".


Clinton Railway Station with the Hotel and
Refreshment Rooms at left, taken 1895
[Source : "Steel Roads of New Zealand"]

A Shocking Accident Halts the Express  

Already late departing Clinton, the express had made good time on the journey to Gore which runs due west through the remote settlements of Wairuna, Waipahi, and Pukera. Just before passing East Gore the line crosses a substantial bridge spanning the Mataua River.

On the footplate of the second engine was "Mr Smith, of the Engine Department" along with the afore-mentioned Mr Conyers, the Commissioner of Railways for the South Island, who appears to have preferred being "up front" where he could observe the performance and handling of his locomotives.

But as the express, "which was not going at [a] great rate" negotiated a curve at East Gore before crossing the Mataura River bridge the engine brakes were suddenly applied with the "sharp, shrill shreaks of the engines denoting that something had gone wrong" followed by the cry of "A man off the train". That man, to the absolute horror of those on board, was found to be Mr Conyers. "Hundreds of people ran along the line to where the unfortunate gentleman lay, about fifty yards from a  water tank placed on a pile of sleepers."

It appears that initially, a dog had been run over. Although no one could definitely say that Mr Conyers had actually seen this event, he did at the very least lean out from the footplate to get a better view of the rear of the train and possibly to ascertain the result of this mishap. "A few minutes before [he] was conversing with the driver, who suddenly turned round, missed him, and gave the alarm".

A lady residing in a nearby cottage witnessed the whole incident but apparently not the dog. Unfortunately, a pile of sleepers supporting a water tank projected rather too closely to the line and Mr Conyers, while looking back as the train rounded the curve, was hit by one of the sleepers. He initially held on for about 50 yards before falling to the ground with "a severe cut over his eye", being rendered "insensible and bleeding profusely from ears and nose", and "breathing stertorously [gasping]".

With plenty of medical assistance at hand, Mr Convers was placed in the nearest railway van and, after having had his head wound stitched, taken on the train slowly into Gore where he was provided with a bed in Green's Hotel, the afore-mentioned Mr Smith remaining with him.

The special express could now continue onto Invercargill as planned but had already been delayed by over an hour due to the accident. Having crossed the above Matuara River bridge at Gore, which consists of ten spans of forty feet each being completed in October 1874, the express now continued due south, the line following the contour of the Mataura Vallev to Edendale which was passed at 5.20 pm. Here the line again turns due west, soon ascending a 120 foot high terrace then through a deep cutting, presenting the steepest grade on the line before continuing "along an almost dead level" to Invercargill.

Invercargill "En Fête"

In Invercargill, "The day broke beautifully fine and the sky... remained almost cloudless throughout the day." and the town was "en fête" with high holiday being kept during the afternoon. Bunting and Chinese lanterns were suspended from many buildings while flags flew from every "coign of vantage". The militia had taken up their positions opposite the Railway Station as planned, while the artillery had placed their cannon ready to welcome the train, "Hundreds of people" lined the area facing the Railway Station and The Crescent and "nothing remained undone that could have been foreseen". "...triumphal arches and all kinds of decorations abounded [while] the railway station was handsomely got up with evergreens &c."

Never Was Greater Sorrow Expressed at a Public Calamity

But it was at this time that a telegram arrived from Gore notifying the accident to Mr Conyers and that the train had now been further delayed. "Never was greater sorrow expressed at a public calamity, and the Telegraph Office was besieged with persons anxious to obtain particulars of the accident." As the amount of telegraph traffic caused a virtual "block" on communication, it was shortly after 5 pm before word arrived to confirm that the express had departed from Gore.

At precisely 6.15 pm, being fully two hours late and "eight hours on the road", the express consisting of "two very fine powerful locomotives, 15 carriages and three brake-vans"  finally pulled up to the Invercargill Railway Station platform (now confusingly facing north), being met with a salute from the artillery. Thereupon the official guests were welcomed on the platform by the Mayor of Invercargill, the Chairman of the County Council, and members of the Demonstration Committee. While "exchanging congratulation on the connection of the towns of Christchurch and Invercargill", there were also sincere expressions of regret at the accident that had marred the day's proceedings. While the Invercargill Garrison Band played "the New Zealand Anthem" the guests were escorted from the station to their accommodation. While considerable difficulty was in fact experienced in finding accommodation for everyone, "shake-downs and so forth were put up with, with good grace."

The Banquet and Presentations

While the Demonstration Committee had discussed whether the banquet should proceed, it was felt  that "it could not be well postponed". At the newly opened Sloan's Theatre in Dee street, but fully an hour late starting, "the upper portion of the house was filled by ["well dressed"] ladies, and the whole of the seats at the table, 300, were occupied". The brass band occupied the stage "and over the footlights was suspended long festoons of evergreens with a pendant bouquet in the centre, and a design with the words inscribed in it 'Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill' "

The usual speeches, toasts, and replies were given including an acknowledgement of "the very general esteem in which Mr Conyers was held". Such was his standing that a collection of around £40 had been taken up on the train by "Mr John Olliver" only about half an hour before the accident to enable a diamond tie pin to be purchased which was intended to be presented to Mr Conyers during the banquet, including a similar gift for Mr Grant, the Railways General Manager. The former would not receive his gift until the 25th April 1879, a railway themed clock (described below) with an engraved plate commemorating the opening of the through route to Invercarhill being considered a more appropriate gift.

The Governor Would Have No "Brown Towns"

During his reply, the Hon. Member of Parliament, Mr William H. Reynolds, stated, and no doubt to an appreciative and relieved audience, that he had himself had had a personal hand in naming the town. It had been proposed by Captain Cargill to name the town "Browntown" after the then Governor "but the Governor would have no Brown Towns", also to the relief of those in the south who "narrowly escaped the designation of 'Brown Town' ". So the Hon. Mr Reynolds himself suggested that Captain Cargill's name be associated with the town (being the founder of the Province of Otago and its first Superintendent), so thus it was named, with the approval of the Governor, Invercargill ["Inver" is a Scottish term meaning "the mouth of a river"].  


A "K" Class Locomotive on the turntable
at the Invercargill Roundhouse, c.1880
[Source : : WW Stewarrt]

Not Forgetting the Early Railway Pioneers

All honour was also given to Sir Julius Vogel, who had sent a congratulatory telegram, "for the conception of the public works scheme and for the courageous stand he took in the face of great opposition thereto". Vogel, as Colonial Treasurer, had been instrumental in courageously, and with some considerable degree of foresight, borrowing the then vast sum of ten million pounds in London for the purposes of developing significant infrastructure in the colony, especially roads, railways and communication.

The absence of two gentlemen was also regretted, being Sir William Sefton Moorhouse, second Superintendent of the Province of Canterbury, and "the initiator of railways in Canterbury" and of the Hon. Dr. James A. Menzies, past Superintendent of the Province of Southland, and "the initiator of [the railways] in Southland". "Eleven years ago in the Southland Provincial Council, he [Dr Menzies] stated that he believed he would be able to travel before he died  - and he was then an old man - by railway from Invercargill to Dunedin, and now that he could get over double the distance he considered that he had been no false prophet."

The Mayor of Christchurch "contrasted the appearance of the country and of Invercargill with that presented when twenty years ago he walked from Dunedin to Invercargill."  

While one or two toasts on the list were omitted due to pressure of time, it was no doubt considered prudent to give the usual toast "to The Ladies", who were of course watching from "the capacious dress circle" above, being suitably responded to by the Hon. Mr Henry Feldwick, Member of Parliament for Invercargill.

The "Brightness and Clearness" of the Electric Light

Despite the "untoward contretemps" [unfortunate accident and delays] that took place on the day the visitors, along with the citizens of Invercargill, would now be treated to the Fire Brigade torchlight parade commencing at 11 pm through an illuminated Invercargill, finishing at a quarter to twelve. Nearly twenty "sulphuric lights" were displayed all along the route with "dozens of rockets" of various colours being let off at short intervals". The "brightness and clearness" of the electric light displayed at The Athæneum drew "general admiration amongst the immense crown of spectators assembled in the street below".

A Curious Fact

"The great fact of the connection of the by railway of the chief cities of the Middle Island is now accomplished. Invercargill is within two days' easy travelling of Christchurch whilst in an emergency the journey could be made in one." It is however also a curious fact that within the very first day of the opening of the new through route it would, as detailed below, prove necessary to run an "emergency" train from Christchurch.  

And What of the Unfortunate Mr Conyers?

Authority was requested and readily granted to keep telegraphic communication with Gore open overnight. Having commenced his railway career in Southland there was widespread local concern for his welfare. Evening telegrams confirmed that Mr Conyers was "much the same, if anything slightly better". 

Upon hearing of the accident and with Mr Conyers' condition being deemed extremely critical, "a special express train" conveying his wife, Fanny Conyers along with some of her children, Mr Buck (the General Manager of Railways) and several others, left Christchurch at 7.30 pm that evening, reaching Gore the following morning at 11 am, an uncomfortable and gruelling fifteen and a half hours journey.

After suffering "a very restless night", regular reports on Thursday state that Mr Conyers was then in a "semi-conscious state" and that Mrs Conyers, whom he recognised, along with his son, were with him. Luckily he had not suffered any skull fracture but his condition was "still in a very precarious state".

After a few days he was reported as being "only partly conscious" with "less feverishness" and making "satisfactory progress". By the 27th he was "very much better" and "readily recognises his friends, and though he frequently wanders in his expressions, everything betokens a quick recovery."



Details of the Railway Themed Clock
presented to Mr William Conyers in 1879
[Source : Papers Past]

A Significant Railway Career in the South

Conyers, who had been born in Leeds England where he gained his engineering qualifications, had "for many years" been "Manager of Southland Railways" (I note that in 1868 he held the positions of "Locomotive Manager" and "Manager of Permanent Ways" on the Bluff Harbour and Invercargill Railway), before being promoted to the position of General Manager of Otago Railways in 1874 at the then very generous salary of £900 pa. He was further promoted to the position of South Island Railways Commissioner in February 1878.

While he physically recovered from his injury, for which he [according to one source] received "substantial compensation", and resumed his railways position on the 14th April, "he was never the same man again." After his position was nationally disestablished in 1880 he held the position of "engineer and secretary and treasurer" for the Bluff Harbour Board until 1889. William Conyers died at Kew in Melbourne, Victoria on the 6th June 1915, aged 76 years. 


Sources :

- Papers Past [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
- Trove [National Library of Australia]
- "Steel Roads of New Zealand" - Edited by Gordon Troup 1973 (from my own collection)
- "Register of New Zealand Railways Steam Locomotives", by WG Lloyd, 1974 (from my own collection)
- Alexander Turnbull Library / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
- Kiwirail.co.nz


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