Murder on the goldfield

The year was 1865.  Over the past four years a sparkle of gold found in a creek had led quickly to a goldrush, with hundreds of people living on the Waipori goldfield.  The town of Waipori at the heart of the goldfield boasted 11 hotels, six stores, banks and many other businesses.

In the surrounding area were more stores and hotels.  On the road to nearby Lawrence, 5 km (3 miles in those days) from Waipori, stood the Hibernian store and accommodation house, owned by Thomas Dickson.

Dickson had arrived in Otago a couple of years earlier from Portadown, County Armagh, Ireland.  According to family lore he intended to marry Margaret Atkinson, also from Portadown, and undertook to write when he was established in New Zealand.  Margaret duly emigrated from Ireland in 1864 with her widowed father Richard Atkinson.

Margaret and Thomas Dickson married in Dunedin in April 1865, and returned to Waipori with Margaret’s father Richard Atkinson to live at the Hibernian accommodation house and store.

Margaret and Thomas Dickson in about 1872 with their two daughters

The accommodation house provided basic lodging and food for miners and travellers, along with stabling for their horses.  The Hibernian was also a store, stocking meat, groceries and other provisions for people on the goldfield.  And alcohol, though it seems the Hibernian didn’t have a licence at the time.

Thomas and Margaret had been married for only 8 months when catastrophe struck.  A digger who went by the name of John Jones (among other names) arrived in the middle of the day looking for a place to stay, and he was shown to the miners’ bunkroom.

On Christmas Eve 1865 Thomas Dickson left with pack horses to take supplies to miners in outlying areas of the goldfield.  While he was away Jones attacked Margaret’s father Richard Atkinson, stabbing him as he worked in the shop and stabbing Margaret when she went to her father’s defence.

Though doctors attended Richard, he died some six days later.  Margaret recovered.  In the same plot are his son-in-law Thomas Dickson, who died in 1873, and George Cotton Taylor, a nephew of Margaret’s second husband Robert Cotton.

Richard Atkinson’s grave at Waipori cemetery

After the stabbing mounted police searched the area and found John Jones at Timber Gully on the Lammerlaw Range, within sight of the Hibernian where the stabbing had taken place.

Jones was arrested and later taken to Dunedin, where he was tried for murder.  Little is known of Jones and his background.  The motive for the attack was unclear.  At the trial questions were raised about the quality of medical care that Richard Atkinson received.  Nonetheless, Jones was convicted of murder and hanged in Dunedin Gaol in April 1866; only the second person to be hanged in Otago province.

These bare facts don’t do justice to a fascinating story of life and death on one of Otago’s goldfields.  A descendant of Richard Atkinson, Ashley Blair, has fully researched this stabbing and the background of Waipori in the 1860s and woven them together into an absorbing story that has been published as a book.

Murder on the Otago goldfields: the 1865 stabbing of Richard Atkinson at Waipori, by Ashley Blair.  Pukerua Press; 2015; 160 pages. The second edition is available for $40 including postage within New Zealand: contact for details.

In 2015, exactly 150 years after Richard Atkinson was stabbed, several of his descendants unveiled a commemorative plaque on the site of the Hibernian.