Mem­ory of drowned pi­o­neer lives on

Marlborough Express - The Saturday Express, Marlborough - - FRONT PAGE -

Nine­teenth cen­tury New Zealand was a tough place for set­tlers try­ing to eke out a liv­ing in a less than hos­pitable coun­try. Hopes of a land of milk and honey turned out to be wildly optimistic. But worse, the lack of roads, bridges and in­fra­struc­ture made it a very dan­ger­ous place to travel.

The story of Har­riet Bas­sett - what brought her to New Zealand, and her short and hard life in Marl­bor­ough - is what makes this par­tic­u­lar story truly tragic.

You could say that the plaque on the lit­tle wooden park bench at Tua­ma­rina Ceme­tery says it all.

‘‘In Mem­ory Bas­sett …’’

‘‘Who came to the new land in the im­mi­grant ship Car­natic in 1875, and was trag­i­cally drowned cross­ing the Wairau River 4 Sept 1876. The pi­o­neer women who with their courage, for­ti­tude, and faith helped to de­velop all that you see be­fore you.’’

Bas­sett left be­hind a hus­band and three chil­dren, as well as her dreams of start­ing a new life with the man she sac­ri­ficed ev­ery­thing for. Coming from well-to-do Bap­tist fam­ily, Bas­sett had be­come es­tranged from her fam­ily af­ter mar­ry­ing Joseph - a man con­sid­ered well be­low her sta­tion.

But it was true love, and New Zealand was sup­posed to be a fresh start for the young fam­ily.

It was Septem­ber 4, 1876 and Bas­sett had been asked to as­sist her hus­band’s em­ploy­ers – Mr and Mrs Furby - on a trip from of Har­riet Ren­wick to Blen­heim.

There was a drive-on ferry for horse and ve­hi­cles, but Mr Furby de­cided not to pay the toll and cross the Wairau river at the end of Hil­locks Rd.

The horse stepped in a hole, spooked and reared up, the trap tipped on its side and all three oc­cu­pants fell out into the river. The bod­ies of the horse and the Fur­bys were found the same day. But it would be weeks be­fore they found Bas­sett’s body.

Bas­sett was buried in an un­marked grave at Tua­ma­rina Ceme­tery. No one re­ally knows where she is in­terred, so a seat was erected by her de­scen­dants in re­mem­brance.

‘‘She’s my fa­ther’s mother’s mother,’’ says Bas­sett’s rel­a­tive Terry Ford who, along with his cousins, erected the park bench. ‘‘Three peo­ple drowned in the river in the same town. It was a big thing for those days.’’

Ford also wrote a short es­say about the in­ci­dent and Bas­sett’s life for Mem­o­ries mag­a­zine in May 2013.

‘‘I think it’s the same as any­body else that reads that story,’’ said Ford.

‘‘I think what a bloody shame how sad it is that they’ve been through all that with so much prom­ise and then, in the space of a few min­utes, the whole thing’s wrecked.

‘‘It was some­thing that took gen­er­a­tions to re­cover from. It seems so sad that it’s not recog­nised in some way, which is why we de­cided we’d do some­thing and even­tu­ally set­tled on the seat.’’

Bas­sett was preg­nant with her third child John when the fam­ily be­gan the 98-day jour­ney to New Zealand on the Car­natic. She would spend most of her time in the sick bay in ap­palling con­di­tions. Hy­giene was sec­ond to sur­vival and ra­tioning was por­tioned care­fully.

Since the Car­natic was a cargo ship, space was re­stricted. To make a few ex­tra bucks, the ship was quickly con­verted to a peo­ple mover.

On Jan­uary 8, 1875, they saw land at Cape Farewell and an­chored in Pic­ton. The fam­ily quickly learned about hard times, but hus­band Sa­muel man­aged to find farm­ing work in Ren­wick with the Furby fam­ily.

Two weeks later their son John was born.

‘‘What peo­ple don’t re­alise you see, that th­ese kinds of things can have ef­fects for years,’’ says Ford.

‘‘When [Bas­sett] drowned, the fam­ily was split up. It was a prob­lem be­cause there was Sa­muel with two girls and the son, John ... he’d only be about 18 months by that stage. And he wasn’t able to look af­ter them as a fam­ily… Chil­dren were a fairly ex­pen­sive busi­ness ... and they weren’t earn­ing their keep.’’

Aban­doned, Bas­sett’s 18-month year old son John would go on en­dure some tough times.

‘‘John [Bas­sett’s son] was tragic,’’ says Ford. ‘‘We lost com­plete track of him, and it wasn’t un­til I man­aged to get a hold of a death cer­tifi­cate ... He went off with a fam­ily some­where, pre­sum­ably did grow up as semis­lave la­bor on the farm some­where, and they shifted down the coast. He’s buried ac­tu­ally in Hok­i­tika, but he died in his early 30s I think. He must have a had a pretty rough life.’’

Ford says that the seat is not just in mem­ory to his long lost rel­a­tive, but also to the thou­sands of for­got­ten pi­o­neer women who helped build New Zealand.

‘‘That’s the most im­por­tant thing we want to say. Let’s not for­get those women who built this coun­try. Who gave us ev­ery­thing we have to­day.’’

PHOTO: DAVID JAMES/STUFF

Terry Ford next to the park bench re­mem­ber­ing his great great grand­mother Har­riet Bas­sett at Tua­ma­rina Ceme­tery.

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