Henry Welch: A respected resident of Taupiri
Henry Welch 1840-1918
Looking at the date, November 8 1918, of Henry Welch’s death on his headstone marker, one could be forgiven for thinking he was a victim of the Spanish Flu epidemic.
But Welch died as a result of something much more dramatic, the derailing of the southbound Express on the North Island Main Trunk Line.
The accident occurred at 6.10am in daylight, just north of Mataroa, north of Taihape. The line in the vicinity of a succession of curves, and the train came suddenly onto the slip when rounding a curve − one report said a passenger saw the slip coming down, so perhaps the slip hit the train rather than the other way round.
Luckily the speed limit at that point was under 35kph or it may have been much worse. Nonetheless, the train came to such an abrupt halt that two cars and a mail van were telescoped and the train partially derailed. The locomotive was completely buried but the engine driver and fireman escaped with only bruises.
However, the mail van was completely smashed and two postal officials were killed instantly. Seven passengers were injured, and treated at the scene when a relief train arrived. Waikato farmer Henry Welch died on the way to Taihape Hospital, and another man died a couple of days later.
The first van was a mortuary van: a coffin was recovered practically undamaged. In an awful irony, the body was that of a train driver whose train had run into a slip just a month earlier.
The Papa cliffs often slipped. The Manawatu Standard (November 8 1918)
reported ‘‘owing to the treacherous nature of the country in heavy rains the vibration of the trains is always liable to bring down falls as they pass . . . a week earlier a big slip occurred and a goods train was derailed just after the Express passed”.
The slip was the result of heavy rain during the day, gale force winds overnight and three earthquakes at 4am – all reminiscent of the recent disasters happening some 100+ years later. And at the same time as an epidemic: by November 8 towns throughout New Zealand were taking precautions against influenza, with disinfectants, temporary hospitals and the closure of some schools. Fifty per cent of railway staff were ill, and at Taihape Hospital, staff were under great pressure.
This was in a period when the Railway was much busier than today, with numerous passenger and freight trains travelling on the Main Trunk Line each day, and closure of the line meant serious disruption to transport.
The Minister of Railways stated that no blame could be attached to any of the train’s staff: ‘‘it was impossible for those in charge of the train to have seen it in time to have prevented the collision’’. And further, that ‘‘The Department had been extremely fortunate in the men who have been in charge of that dangerous section of the line between Frankton and Marton.
On it, slips had been continually coming down during the winter and it was only due to the great care and diligence of the staff in charge that similar accidents had been prevented in the past’’.
Henry Welch was 78 and was going to Hastings to visit his son − instead, his son had to come to Taihape to identify his father’s body.
Henry Welch was considered ‘‘an old and respected resident of Taupiri”. He farmed in the area but kept a low profile, though at least four of his seven sons were often in the news with successes in athletics and cricket.
Henry Welch was buried in Taupiri Cemetery with his wife Eliza who had died in 1911.
Nearby is the grave of one-year-old Mervyn Welch, their grandson, who died in 1903.
A plaque added to the side of the monument erected for Eliza reads “In memory of Henry and Eliza Welch married by Rev V. Lush at Howick 8/10/1861.”
Eliza’s father George Leaning was a Fencible settler, a retired soldier, and Henry Welch had also been a career soldier before settling in the Waikato.